There is a lot of responsibility on your shoulder when you are the last line of defence. Arindam Bhattacharya, the shot-stopper of ATK Mohun Bagan, has been a constant name in the Indian club football circuit. When it comes to goal-keeping, India has always been blessed with fine talents, and Arindam has been one of the standout talents in a plethora of goal-keepers who have fascinated the nation with their skills between the sticks. Arindam has won every accolade in Indian football, an I-league with Churchill Brothers, an ISL with ATK and the Federation Cup with Bengaluru FC and countless best goal-keeper awards. Arindam, who is only 32, has been part of 15 footballing seasons in India. We sat down with the Mariners man to relive his journey in Indian football from Surya Sen Sporting Club in Khardah ISL glory.
In our latest instalment of Dil Se Football, Arindam Bhattacharya sat down with us to relive his journey and talk about his future. On being asked why he did choose to become goal-keeper, Arindam delved into memory lane to talk about how he started playing football with his brother and their friends and being the youngest, he was asked to keep goals, and that’s where the story starts. Arindam says, ” As a kid, I grew up watching a lot of football, and I used to play with my seniors and brothers around the neighbourhood, and because I was young they used to keep me out and so to play with them I told them I would be a goalkeeper and then I started enjoying the position, and I started earning their praise with my saves. Then one of my seniors with whom I used to play took me to a professional training centre, before that we used to play bare feet in the neighbourhood and then I started training there and started enjoying playing as a goalkeeper.” Arindam also talks about how Oliver Kahn and his performances in the 2002 World Cup got him hooked to goal-keeping as Kahn was a star for his country he led during the world cup, but his performances under the bar made him a star and a global sensation. As a young teenager, it motivated Arindam to pursue goal-keeping.
During the late 2000s and early 2010s, with only the I-league around, which was struggling to generate revenues, football wasn’t such a lucrative career option as all big money was being pumped into Indian cricket, unlike today with the ISL around. We asked Arindam what prompted him to choose to become a professional footballer in an age when there wasn’t much money to be made out of the sport. Arindam says, “I always wanted to play football, and then I started enjoying football, so then I thought I would choose it as a career. My family was cool with me choosing football (as a career) even though there weren’t sport professionals in the family. So I went to TFA, and then I knew I wanted to play football (as a career option) because my batch mates were playing for the U-19 National team, so I thought I am playing with them every day, so I have to push myself a little more, and that’s how I got selected in the U-19 national team.”
2 years after making the cut, Arindam graduated from the TATA Football Academy in Jamshedpur not before representing them in the I-League second division qualifiers where they were clubbed with Churchill Brothers. They beat Churchill 2-0 and went on to finish group leaders and secured qualification. Churchill finished 2nd. Arindam was able to catch the eye of then Chruchill honcho, Churchill Alemao, and the Kolkata giants and JCT, but his meeting with Churchill impressed him the most. Arindam recollects, “Churchill called me and the way he spoke to me and the things he told me impressed me the most. I had seen the team, and I knew I would get to play there in the first place. I have heard many stories about Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, you know, it’s very tough and massive crowds, and again, to be honest, Churchill Brothers were giving me the better package, and my TFA seniors were also there. Subrata Paul is my TATA Football Academy senior, and I used to discuss everything with him, and he suggested to me, “I think you should go to Churchill and start playing there as you are still young.” and I was 18-19 back then. Also, I discussed with my coach in Khardah where I used to train, and he also suggested it is better you go to Churchill now and play there a few seasons, so yeah, that’s how I joined Churchill.”
Also, unlike contemporary Bengali footballers back then, Arindam didn’t start his career with the big two in Kolkata. Instead, he went to Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur. He then started his footballing career with Churchill in Goa as a mere teenager. We asked him how difficult was it for him, he says, “I will be honest here it was challenging, it is really difficult as a teenager that you have no one from home to speak your language to or when you have a fever or struggling with something you don’t have your parents to pat and give you a glass of water to. Back then, we used to have 11 months season having to play 30 to 35 games, including all the leagues, and then you get only 1 month with your family. But then I got used to it. I was in Jarkhand for 2 years in Tata Football Academy before moving to Goa for 6-7 years.”
With the onset of the ISL, each franchise setting up with its own football academy and the grassroots football development getting the boost, it is probably hard to imagine the work TATA Football Academy has done for Indian football. For a very long time, India’s only premier football institute was the breeding ground for national team players. On being enquired about the effect TFA had on him, he says, ” The one thing that changed in me after joining TFS is that they build character. See, football is there, but they make you take your own decisions. They make it tough for you. The coaches remind you that if you do not perform, you are going home, and to be able to take that pressure daily and perform and compete is not easy. You have to fight for yourselves every day. So it helps you know, once you step into any club, that’s pressure is normal for you. You have already taken that since your time in TFA.”
Arindam credits a lot of his success to his mentor and idol Subrata Pal, who was his senior at TFA, and he enjoyed every time they clashed against each other in the I League, from borrowing his kit to playing against on the national stage, it has been a surreal journey for the Mariners no. 1. Arindam also talks to us about his days at Churchill Brothers with former Indian star defender Gouramnagi Singh and talisman Odafa Okolie and how they and the whole team used to hang out together going to fine dining restaurants or trips together to training together and how they enjoyed his time as a footballer while playing Churchill. He maintains his stint with Churchill was probably the most memorable as a footballer and won the I-League with them as a teenager, one of his fondest memories. When we inquired about what he prefers, the footballing scene in the country back then or the renaissance that ISL has brought about, Arindam is very candid in his reply. ” No, obviously, the current situation, there are no two thoughts about it. I feel delighted when I see players working out during the off-season, unlike before. We didn’t use to have excellent goalkeeper coaches back then, and now we have outstanding goalkeeper coaches. They help you stay in shape and not overwork during training before matches, and I wish I got to experience this while I was younger. ISL is better, but I miss my younger days as well, but if I had to choose, I would choose the ISL.”
Arindam started his ISL voyage with now dissolved outfit FC Pune City. When the ISL laid out its red carpet and all its glitz and glam, which was very different from the I-League. The glam and glitz didn’t sway Arindam as the shot-stopper knew that if he had to survive in the new league, he had to be on top of his game, which meant training hard and not let his footballing level drop amidst the circus of media frenzy and camera flashes. The ISL was very different from the I-League, with all these big-name marquee players coming to India to play. We asked Arindam what the feeling was like when he shared the dressing room with the likes of David Trezeguet and Adrian Mutu, two stalwarts of the game were. Arindam shares another anecdote with us. He tells us, ” We were in Florence, and we were getting ready for breakfast Manish Maithani and me, and he went down, and we see David Trezeguet sitting there, and I was star struck. Our manager introduced us, and I spoke to him for a bit. He didn’t speak much English, but then you get to talk to a legend like that, and he is your teammate. That’s a different feeling.”
He tells us how sharing a dressing room and being in the same team as these legends like Mutu, Trezeguet and Zokora helped him learn many things when it comes to football. How they prepare before a game, how they push themselves when they are tired, and their qualities are all things that young players could learn from them. Even if they lack the qualities, they can pick up the attitude that a premier footballer holds and push themselves to achieve that and help become better footballers. When he asked him about his favourite teammate or opponent while playing in the ISL, Arindam reveals “I played against Anelka and when I played against Roberto Carlos whom I have seen play as a kid and then I played against Materrazi, and I still remember after our game against Chennaiyin in Pune, he patted my back and said “Good goalkeeper. Good.” And then I remember in our away game in Chennai, I came across Materrazi at breakfast, and I wanted to avoid him as we played against him the next day. But he saw me, called me over, “Goalkeeper come, have coffee with me.” We had coffee together. Then I played against David James, and I still remember I had this picture of him on the wall in my bedroom, and he also used to like me, and we used to talk a lot on Instagram and Whatsapp. All these things, these are great memories, you know.”
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