Roy’s goal: Tracing India roots
May 14, 1879 is a date no Fijian of Indian origin, including Roy Krishna, so far the biggest catch for ATK and the Indian Super League (ISL), will forget. It is when the schooner Leonidas brought the first Girmityas, or indentured labourers from India, into the South Pacific archipelago, having sailed from Kolkata on March 3 that year.
This August, Krishna is coming to Kolkata to work. And, maybe, trace his roots, a task that could be way more difficult than something he does quite well for a living: score goals, 51 of which have come from 122 appearances over five seasons in Australia’s A-League.
“I’ve always wondered where exactly my forefathers were from in Kolkata and I would like to find out. Over the years, our family names have changed and because most of the elders in our family are not alive anymore, it’s very difficult to narrow down the village we were from. All I knew growing up was that all the ships that came to Fiji with Indians who came to work came from Kolkata and that would be my starting point,” says Krishna on e-mail.
Krishna, 31, is Fiji captain (23 goals in 35 internationals) and has a goal in the 2013 Fifa Club World Cup, the only player from his country to do that. Till last season he was with Wellington Phoenix, the New Zealand team that is part of the 10-team A-League. Krishna was adjudged the 2018-19 A-League’s best player and won the golden boot for scoring 18 goals, the maximum by any player, in 25 games. He also had four assists.
Fiji is 148th in the Fifa ranking and Krishna says he had to work extra hard to get noticed. Krishna also credits Mark Rudan, Phoenix’s coach last term, for getting him out of his comfort zone.
“The pre-season with Mark was one of the toughest I had gone through. He challenged all of us physically and mentally which included a boot camp,” he said.
Last month, Krishna also won the Te Kairanga Sportsman of the Year award, given to the best athlete across disciplines in Wellington. “New Zealand is big on rugby and winning the award as a footballer meant that I had something very special that I would cherish forever,” says Phoenix’s all-time leading scorer.
So why would someone who played against Japan’s Kesiuke Honda, Australia right-back Josh Rishdon and forwards Daniel Arzani and Dimitri Petratoz, and played alongside midfielder Sarpreet Singh who has signed for Bayern Munich, move to India?
The short answer to this enigma of arrival: Roots.
Krishna says they speak Fiji-baat, (a version of Hindi) and he grew up being exposed to things Indian. In May, when he was thinking about his next move, Krishna was invited to a programme commemorating the 140th year of Indians arriving in New Zealand.
“I was honoured for being a leader in sports alongside other Indian descendants who were receiving their awards in literature or the arts,” he says. “I was considering different cities in Asia and Europe and among them was an offer from ATK. I felt like it was a sign that I had to go back to my roots. I spoke to my wife (Naziah Ali) and she agreed that it was time to reconnect with our forefathers’ birth place. She convinced me that it was a challenge worth taking. I think this is a real chance for all of us to discover our roots and my parents are also coming with me.”
Krishna says Ali’s ancestors are from Bihar and that having visited before, she loves India. “Going as far as India would mean that my wife would have to come with me so she had a big role to play in the decision-making process,” he says.
A top player from a league ranked higher than India’s could be good news for ISL at a time when fiscal woes of at least one franchise has come to the fore and there has been a drastic drop in attendance for most teams, ATK in particular.
This is not the first time that a promising international player has made a move to India while still at his prime. Costa Rica midfielder Carlos Hernandez was 30 when he joined Kolkata’s Prayag United in 2012 from Melbourne Victory, having played the 2006 World Cup, and scoring a goal in 2010 in an international friendly against France.
But it may be the first time a professional footballer will come to India hoping to complete his family tree.