Rapida Rapida, cries out Sanju Pradhan, as he curls a cross to Eduardo, to create an assist for Izumi Arata who displays quicksilver reflexes to slide past Hrithik and nod the ball home. ‘Gooooooooooooooal’, exudes Arata and spread his arms wide like Shah Rukh Khan.
The intermittent rain and fading light have failed to dampen the fervour of the bunch of schoolboys engaged in a noisy five-a-side street football contest in Pune’s Jairam Nagar neighbourhood. They are up against FC Pune City’s brightest stars, set to play in the 2016 season of the Indian Super League which kicks off with Pune playing the Mumbai City FC on Wednesday.
The ‘Hrithik’ trying to thwart the star forwards isn’t the eponymous movie star and co-owner of FC Pune City. His namesake Hrithik Adsul, a student of class 8 at Shree Shivaji School, can’t believe his luck: “This is unreal! I am actually playing football on the street with Arata, he is a superstar.”
Invoking some ingenious moves in a session of street football, a terrain which was the original learning ground for such brilliant footballing talent as Lionel Messi, Ronaldo and Adriano, the star recruits of FC Pune City are giving the students a masterclass in dribbling, ball distribution and gamesmanship.
“Back home in Brazil, street football is big,” remarks Eduardo, 32, the stocky tattoo-sporting defender who grew up playing on the tough streets of Rio, before he turned professional. “It isn’t just youngsters who love to indulge in a game of ball every evening on the streets. Even Brazilian businessmen and politicians are not immune to its charms,” adds Eduardo.
Sikkimese midfielder Sanju Pradhan, 27, who won the Indian Super League’s inaugural season in Atletico de Kolkata colours, says his original football skills were honed in the bylanes of his village Sombria when the older boys didn’t allow him to play with them. “I learnt dribbling on the streets with a plastic ball,” he says with a smile.
A day before their first Indian Super League encounter, with some of the most impressive overseas acquisitions in 2016, FC Pune City resembles a fascinating cauldron of tongues, cultures and playing styles.
Hrithik Roshan is the boss
Dharamaraj Ravanan, 29, the muscular defender from Tamil Nadu, has been a permanent fixture for the club over the last three seasons of the league. In an age where players shift loyalties like Navjot Sidhu’s apocryphal turning wickets, the affable central defender’s loyalty towards his club and calm demeanour stand out. But there’s a playful side to him, as we discover. “Let the league begin, I’ll teach the Spanish boys some Hrithik dance moves. But they appear to be more interested in pumping iron like Salman,” he says in jest.
FC Pune City might be part of a team co-owned by Hrithik Roshan, but their bronzed bodies and washboard abs could give everybody’s favourite Bhaijaan a run for his blockbuster. As they splash around in the rooftop pool of Gateway Hotel, it is clear that the professional footballer of today takes to off-the-field bonding exercises like fish to water.
“Pitu has the best tattoos in the team,” declares Eduardo, “But Edel is the big daddy for Pune fans, because you know, he resembles Caribbean cricketer Chris Gayle,” adds Lucca, 22, inviting spontaneous laughter from his teammates as they guffaw about the time the team went out into the city last week and how hundreds of fans mistook the dreadlocked goalkeeper for the explosive batsman, inundating him with selfie requests.
Rapida, Rapida Jaldi, Jaldi
For the last few weeks, learning new Spanish phrases has the players revved up. It could be the influence of their new coach Antonio Lopez Habas, who helped Atlético de Kolkata claim victory in the inaugural ISL Season in 2014, or a genuine attempt to reach out to their Spanish speaking teammates, but most practice sessions tend to end with cries of Vamos (Spanish for ‘come on’).
Although almost half of the eleven (Bruno Arias, Pitu, Lucca, Anibal and marquee player Eidur Gudjohnsen) understands Spanish, Arias and Lucca have been informally assigned the task of translating queries in English for Pitu and Anibal, who are not, ahem, the most comfortable with the language.
Translating a scribe’s queries has its advantages, particularly when your teammates are busy strutting around in tuxedos and bow-ties designed by Pune Fashion Week organiser and showstopper Nivedita Saboo, as if they are walking the Cannes red carpet.
As they discuss films and celebrities, poker and Pierce Brosnan, not unexpectedly, the talk moves to the Brangelina break-up. The chatter is about which rakish footballer fancies his chances of dating the Italian beauty now that she is single. Known for his immaculate passing in the league, Bruno, 32, makes a grand declaration: “With Angelina, I stand a better chance than both Pitu and Anibal. Because, well, I look much better. Also, I can speak English.”
They gambol around during the shoot, ribbing each other about their tattoos or shiny tuxedos and bow-ties. Suddenly, a giant player with a close crop of blonde hair walks in and a hush prevails. Marquee player Eidur Gudjohnsen of Iceland cuts a dapper figure in a tuxedo and comes with the reputation of two Premier League titles, a La Liga crown and a Champions League winner’s medal with Barcelona. Ask Gudjohnsen about the importance of bonding off the field and he says he is game for most things. “Whether it is playing street football, a fashion shoot, or watching a movie together, everything plays its part,” says the veteran who considers watching Jennifer Lawrence on the big screen as an evening well-spent.
For the love of the beautiful game
Among the Indian players, one of the most illustrious names is the 30-year-old lanky defender Gouramangi Singh. A former National Football League winner, the man from Manipur knows a thing or two about creating the winning habit and the importance of gelling with teammates off the field.
As a part of their pre-season training and conditioning, the team prepared for the 2016 season at Vincci Valdecanas, a sports-cum-leisure complex one and a half hours away from Madrid.
“Adapting to alien cultures is expected from most contemporary footballers now,” says Singh, as he sips at green tea at the hotel’s 24-hour coffee shop. “Our coach is Spanish, but there is a universal language of football that everybody understands. We spent more than a month at a training camp near Madrid in the pre-season preparations. It helped the overseas pros and Indian team members know each other,” adds Gouramangi.
Living out of a suitcase, being on the road with your teammates as an overseas football player isn’t all fun and games. Ask Jesus Rodriguez Tato.
The feisty winger from Spain, who stays in Ceuta, a Spanish autonomous city located on the north coast of Africa, suddenly deserts the pool and heads to his room. “I’ve just been blessed with another daughter,” he shouts as his teammates huddle around him to congratulate him. “I wish I were there with my wife Rebeca at this special moment,” he says, as he shows me the picture of the newborn.
It is just another beautiful moment in the life of a practitioner of the Beautiful Game.
The Indian from Japan
The son of a Gujarati father and Japanese mom, Arata Izumi was granted Indian citizenship in 2012. FYI, his wife is Maharashtrian.
“When I go to Japan they call me a foreigner and in India they see me as Japanese. If I go to play in Europe or Africa, they will again call me a foreigner. But it is okay. It is expected of a modern-day footballer,” says Izumi.
Playing for FC Pune City this season is a homecoming for Izumi. In 2009, he played for Pune in the I-League. Two years later, he finished the season with a career best of 10 goals and 10 assists in 26 games that won him a nomination for best midfielder in the I-League by goal.com.
But his on-field exploits are not the only reason the city’s football fans love him. Married to Pune girl Shweta Manerikar, Izumi says Pune is his second home now. “I’ve built a house here where I stay with my wife, daughter and two dogs,” says Izumi, who first met his wife when he sought her help as a physiotherapist for Pune FC.
Izumi takes his Hindi movies seriously. “I loved Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om. And have watched most of Aamir Khan’s films. I loved his portrayal of a teacher in Taare Zameen Par. Everybody should watch that film.”
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From HT Brunch, October 2, 2016
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