Given that four of our last six football Arjunas seemed like lifetime achievement awards, it is fitting that Subrata Pal was chosen this year. Unlike Deepak Mondal (2010), IM Vijayan (2003), Bruno Coutinho (2002) and Brahmanand Sankhwalkar (1997), though Pal is 29 and can reclaim India’s No.1 shot-stopper’s slot.
Pal was that till September 8, 2015 when Gurpreet Sandhu replaced him for the World Cup qualifier against Iran. He has started in two of India’s 12 matches since.
Since Sunil Chhetri, the last Arjuna recipient in football in 2011, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has been recommending Pal, who rose to prominence in 2007. He won three Nehru Cup titles, the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup and was called ‘Spiderman’ for his performance against South Korea in the 2011 Asian Cup finals. Now India No. 2, Pal was also part of the squad that won the SAFF Cup.
It was Pal’s courage that got then India coach Bob Houghton to prefer him over Sandip Nandy, who was better equipped technically.
Pal grabbed the opportunity with both hands and was adjudged best goalie in the 2007 Nehru Cup. The goalie is often called the team’s ‘camera’ and Pal epitomised that against Bangladesh with a kick sent deliberately long from which Bhaichung Bhutia scored. In 2009, it was his save in the sudden-death shootout, flying to his right and keeping out the shot with his left hand, that helped India retain the Nehru Cup. Pal was again between the posts for the 2012 Nehru Cup.
Pal split the first eight years of his career between Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Pune FC. In 2007, at a reported annual salary of Rs 50 lakh, he was one of the highest paid players at East Bengal. This, less than three years after being suspended by the AIFF for a challenge on Cristiano Junior just before the Brazilian died.
Pal was exonerated but needed a lot of hand-holding by Debasish Mukherjee, the former India goalie now his father-in-law, to get going. He did but was released by Mohun Bagan soon after reportedly for not giving his best. Houghton thought otherwise and then there was no looking back.
Football took Pal to the Tata Football Academy, rescuing him from going off the rails. From there to being India’s 24th football Arjuna has been a journey with a pit stop in Denmark thrown in. A journey where the one thing Pal never lost was hope.