For Atletico de Kolkata skipper Borja Fernandez, it was the last chance to get out of Spain as a footballer. So, at 33, when the call came, he grabbed the opportunity.
“The sports director at Atletico Madrid knew me from his time with Valladolid in 2006. This was a new league, a new world and it was the sense of adventure along with the opportunity to keep playing football that excited me,” said the Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) skipper in an exclusive interview to HT, his first this season, before the ISL 2016 final in Kochi on Sunday.
For Atletico de Kolkata, Fernandez’s passage to India has turned out to be much more than that. The former Real Madrid footballer succeeded Luis Garcia as skipper in the second edition of the tournament and more importantly, from the time the Indian Super League (ISL) kicked-off with ATK hosting Mumbai City FC --- Fernandez scored with a peach of a long-ranger in that game --- he’s started in 46 of the 49 games the team’s played. That’s 4108 minutes of football over three seasons, the highest by a distance in the league.
So, it fits that in a competition where Alessandro del Piero, Lucio, Roberto Carlos, Helder Postiga, Robert Pires and Luis Garcia have kitted up, the record belongs to a defensive midfielder. When he was playing for Leicester City, someone said, only half in jest, that the world has 75% water, the rest is covered by N’Golo Kante. In the context of the ISL, you could say that for Borja Fernandez.
Fernandez adds steel to ATK’s spine. When Robert Lathlamuana was shown the red card against Mumbai City FC in the semi-final and, till coach Jose Molina made a substitution, it was Fernandez who had slipped into a central defender’s position because Tiri switched to playing left back.
“I guess you can thank my parents for that,” said Fernandez, speaking through ATK sports director Alberto Marrero who acted as interpreter, when asked what makes him tick at 35.
After the first season of ISL, he joined Eibar where he comfortably chased Lionel Messi and then in 2015-16, it was Valladolid in the second division. “I want to go back and play in Spain this time too,” said Fernandez.
Fernandez said he does nothing in particular to keep going. “I may be more careful about what I eat than when I was 25 but no, I don’t follow a particular diet or fitness regimen,” he said.
Fernandez was a Real Madrid player in the time of the Galacticos. “My biggest takeaway from those days is how close they were with each other. And (Zinedine) Zidane’s my all-time favourite footballer.”
That Real Madrid squad also had defensive midfielder Claude Makelele. “From him, I learnt that you need to sacrifice for the team.” But the player, Fernandez really likes to reference the most is Fernando Redondo. The Argentine defensive medio was a Real regular when Fernandez was with the academy.
Fernandez said India has been an experience to cherish. “This country has impacted me and that’s what I share with the Spanish people. The daily life here is so different from ours…A lot of my friends have said they want to visit,” he said.
Having nearly 23,000 followers on Twitter and 17,800 on Instagram, Fernandez could also be the face of tourism in India. After he is done with ATK, that is.