The short but eventful career of Mohammed Rafique seems best encapsulated by John Lennon’s immortal lines: ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.’
Rafique, whose opportunistic goal helped Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) win the first Indian Super League (ISL) and made him the story of the final, will play for Kerala Blasters, the team he helped beat in 2014.
Between then and now, Rafique, 24 next month, has sealed a place in the East Bengal starting 11 and caught national coach Stephen Constantine’s eye. Even before Constantine took over, Rafique had been included in the national team probables’ list in January 2015. Now, he often makes the playing 11. In India’s last match, a 6-1 win against Laos that helped seal a second round qualifying berth for the 2019 Asian Cup, Rafique even got on the scoresheet.
Rafique’s ability to play as central midfielder, wide left and a striker means he does that often enough for East Bengal, the latest being his goal against Army XI in Friday’s Premier Division A match of the Kolkata league. After the goal, coming on a day ATK finalised their quota of 14 Indian players, Rafique even celebrated the way former ATK striker Fikru Lemessa did, with somersaults.
“He is getting used to playing as central midfielder. He has already scored a goal (in three games of the Kolkata league) and has helped create many opportunities for the team. Rafique is a hard-working boy,” said East Bengal coach Trevor James Morgan on Saturday.
Before the Kolkata league last year, Rafique scored three goals for East Bengal in a tournament in Bangladesh. In the Kolkata league, he scored four including one in the match that matters most --- against Mohun Bagan. Two more goals in the Kolkata derby which East Bengal won 4-0 came from free-kicks awarded after Rafique was fouled. This was in September, less than two months after Rafique had gone unsold in the Indian players’ draft, despite a base price of only Rs 10 lakh.
Without an ISL team when the second edition began, Rafique got lucky when ATK called him as a replacement one month into the competition. “I feel he will continue to prove his determination to perform in the ongoing tournament like last season. His recent performances surely are keeping him match ready. I look forward to work with him,” then ATK coach Antonio Lopez Habas had said.
Guess against whom Rafique started his first game of ISL2? Kerala Blasters, away. For the first half, he played in central midfield before being replaced in a game ATK won 3-2. For the rest of the tournament, Rafique played bit parts. Even in ATK’s last game, the 2-1 win in the second-leg of semi-final against Chennaiyin FC, Rafique replaced left-back Rinto Anto in the 79th minute. He played 267 minutes having joined after eight games.
So, why did ATK leave Rafiq out? The franchise did not want to comment when HT sought a response but a team source said they already had Jewel Raja and had signed Bikash Jairu so Rafique didn’t fit into their plans. Rafiq told HT that ATK had initially sounded him out. “I waited for them to take this forward but when they didn’t, I joined Kerala Blasters,” he said.
For Ishfaq Ahmed, Kerala Blasters’ assistant-coach-cum-player, signing Rafique was a no-brainer. “I wanted him even before he got picked for the national team. He can play in a number of positions and that’s an asset for any team. He is also hard-working. I think under Morgan he will go a long way,” said Ahmed over the phone from Srinagar.
The son of a jute mill worker in Sodepur, some 20km from Kolkata’s city centre, football’s improved Rafique’s life and that of his family. But even he didn’t expect to be congratulated by Sourav Ganguly. “That goal was the most important one of my life,” he had said after the header that helped ATK beat Kerala Blasters 1-0 at the DY Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai on December 20, 2014.
It was an effort that had Rafique being sought out by autograph hunters even though Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar were present as team owners. Quite a turnaround for a player who, tired of being kept on the bench, left ATK to represent his employers and was suspended by the franchise. “I just wanted to play,” Rafique had said after the final where he was a 74th minute substitute.
“The ISL is about Indian players, not marquees, not international players,” said ATK marquee Luis Garcia after Rafiq had won it. Before Garcia, Kerala Blasters’ manager and goalkeeper David James said: “It was fitting that an Indian scored the matchwinning goal in the final.”
Rafiq started with United SC but because they faced financial difficulties, he moved to the club he supported in 2014, East Bengal. Before doing that, he apologised to United SC’s fans on social media. At United SC, it was his goal that helped them win the Durand Cup in 2010. Again, he had come on as a sub.
This is the first time Rafiq is playing for a club outside Kolkata, the city he dedicated his goal in the ISL1 final to. Not a man of many words, he simply said about his new adventure: “I will have to do very well for them.” If there is regret about not playing for Kolkata in the ISL, Rafique isn’t showing it.