Many coaches and several more players have passed through the rotating door that is Indian football for the past decade. But one name has almost been ever-present on the Indian football team sheet. Proudly hailed as the ‘Spiderman of India’, Subrata Pal has been one of the country’s greatest servants till date. It may have taken a while before he received an official recognition for his efforts, which came in the form of an Arjuna Award he received on Monday, but Pal is grateful just to be able to make his passion, his profession.
“I never play for awards; I love to play football, playing the game gives me happiness. When your passion is your profession, it’s the greatest joy. I thank God that I was able to do this,” said Pal, who became the 24th Indian footballer to receive the prestigious Arjuna award.
“My job is to play. Whenever the coach puts me on the field, my job is to prevent the opponent from scoring a goal. Till the time I play, I will continue to do my job,” Pal told reporters in Mumbai, ahead of the international friendly against Puerto Rico.
“I have no complaints about receiving the award late or early. There many great players before me who didn’t receive this honour. I’m among those 24 lucky footballers who have won it. I thank God and my parents’ blessing for that,” he added in a modest fashion that’s quite typical of him.
Pal, who has appeared for the Indian national team 64 times, made his professional debut in 2004 with Mohun Bagan. However, his blossoming career hit an early roadblock. In the 2004 Federation Cup final, Pal had a collision with Dempo striker Cristiano Junior, that led to the Brazilian striker’s death.
At the time, many including Baichung Bhutia had held Pal responsible for Junior’s death, while the AIFF had also suspended the Indian goalkeeper. However, he was later exonerated of any wrongdoing in Junior’s death, with match officials being held responsible for their negligence.
Traumatised by the incident and released by Mohun Bagan at the end of the season, Pal’s career seemed to be on a downward spiral, until Bob Houghton — India’s coach from 2007-2011 — showed faith in Pal’s abilities and picked him over the experienced Sandeep Nandy in goal. Ever since, Pal has helped India to three Nehru Cup titles, one AFC Challenge Cup and one SAFF Cup title.
Fast forward to 2016: Having been India’s first choice goalkeeper for almost a decade, Pal has already built a legacy. However, there is a threat to his place in the side once again. He’s had to surrender his place in goal to Gurpreet Singh Sandhu — the only Indian to ever play in the Europa League — and has started just two out of 12 previous games for the national side.
But the Kolkata-born goalkeeper has taken it in his stride, just like every other challenge that life has thrown at him. “Challenges were there before and they remain even today. We are born with challenges. We come to this planet empty-handed and will leave empty-handed. There was someone else who was the first choice before me and there will be someone after me. No one can be at that position forever, that’s life.” he said.
“If the coach feels that Gurpreet should play, then he must be right; I have full faith in the gaffer. I appreciate Gurpreet for playing in Europe. But the day the coach gives me a chance, I will give my hundred per cent. It’s not necessary that I must play every game,” Pal added.
On the flip side, it’s a headache that would please manager Stephan Constantine, who’s trying to knit together an Indian side that could make a mark at the 2019 Asian Cup. Pal, one of India’s flagbearers in the sport in recent years, thinks greatly of the young crop of players trying to find their feet at the international stage and shares Constantine’s long-term vision that the coach has been so vocal about.
“This is a transition period for Indian football. The average age of our side must be around 25. We have a very good bunch of boys who are extremely talented. Most of them are just 21-22. So if we can play together for two more years, we will perform well as a team and hopefully qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup,” the 29-year-old said.
Having made the country proud with his efforts during the dark times, Pal sees light at the end of the tunnel. Improving facilities and growing infrastructure give him hope. “When we used to play for the national team, we were struggling for the pitch, but nowadays, the facilities are improving. Our federation and IMG-Reliance are trying to do something really good for Indian football. I really appreciate that,” the goalkeeper said.
Growth and development of Indian football is all that has mattered to Pal throughout his career. Whether between the sticks, or on the bench, or even off the field, football has driven his life. And the 29-year-old custodian doesn’t see it changing. “If Indian football needs any kind of help, Subrata Pal will always be there. I would like to contribute towards Indian football till my last breath.” he said. Words that would keep admirers of the beautiful game in the country believing that there could be a bright future for the game in the country.