Raju Eknath Gaikwad, 20
Once you get into the swanky Doha International Airport, it takes time to sink in. India’s under-23 Olympic team boys were no exception. Minutes later when all started walking towards the immigration line, the search began – the search for a wheelchair. The then under-23 coach Desmond Bulpin desperately looked around. “I need it. It’s urgent.”
Everyone was stumped! It was a fit bunch of 23 boys, most below 20 and there weren’t any injuries. Moments later, Bulpin arrived. The smile on his face said it all. “Raju, come sit.” Bulpin pointed towards the wheelchair. Obedient as ever, stopper-back Raju Eknath Gaikwad, India’s under-23 Captain, followed the instructions.
“Raju has a slight niggle on his left ankle. I can’t take any chance. He may be the difference between us losing and winning,” Bulpin said. An embarrassed Raju ‘enjoyed’ his ride, his teammates clicked pictures.
Bulpin always felt Raju has it in him to play in Europe. His positional sense, his anticipation, his spot-jumps are “all perfect.” And those long throws! Raju has the shoulders and physique to make the ball travel from almost the center-line to the penalty spot, that too through a throw. “He is our throw-in specialist,” former Team India coach Armando Colaco had commented.
Brandon Fernandes, 16
The wall stood still and the ball at the free-kick spot. A curly-haired Brandon Fernandes runs and does the service. At a speed which possibly no other modern-generation Indian footballer has ever hit a free-kick, the ball sails past all and bulges the net. Midfielder Brandon raises his hand to try another shot at the goal.
“He should be the next big Indian star,” comments Colm Joseph Toal, Head Coach, Youth Development, India.
“I’ve seen him from close. This guy is potentially the next big thing in Indian football. Only, he needs to go the distance.”
“I just need to play. I love to play. Football is my first love. I can’t stay away from the ball,” Brandon says in one breath and then takes to a ball to juggle. “Most goals nowadays come from dead ball situations. I love to exploit such situations,” he adds, even as he continues to juggle.
“Brandon’s service is excellent,” Toal informs. “As a coach, you can depend on him. Out of 100 kicks, he will keep the ball in the perfect place in almost 99 cases,” he maintains.
Hailing from Goa, Brandon was an instant hit when India took the field in the under-19 AFC Qualifiers in Tehran.
Supratim Bhattacharya, 15
Supratim Bhattacharya loves to shop. “But I don’t have the money,” he laments and then smiles. “I want to buy goalkeeping gloves almost every day. There are so many kinds of gloves in the market. I am a greedy boy; I want all of them.” Under the bar, his acrobatics will impress anyone for sure. The spring in his dives are bound to catch your eye. After all, Supratim has football in his blood – former Indian goalkeeper Atanu Bhattacharya, a former Asian All-Stars player, is his uncle.
“Supratim is a born goalkeeper,” comments Pailan Arrows’ goalkeeping coach Tanumoy Basu. “The moment I saw him, I knew he is one for the long run. He is brave and technically, he is much better than most others.”
Supratim was part of the Indian contingent which qualified for the final phase of the AFC under-16 qualifiers in Tashkent. “His gripping and reflexes is the envy of every goalkeeper,” Basu adds.
Pronoy Halder, 18
Almost every day, you’ll come across a statement – a sort of disturbing statement for all who follow Indian football. ‘Football in Bengal is on the decline,’ stays the sentiment.
The statement pains Pronoy Halder, possibly the most promising midfielder from Bengal at the moment. A midfielder in India’s under-19 AFC Qualifiers in Tehran, Pronoy’s passion on the field is something which Indian football has lacked for long. Tall, athletic, strong and a born fighter, Pronoy, a product of the Tata Football Academy, is on the verge of breaking into the mainstream with Pailan Arrows in the I-League.
“He’s an optimist,” comments Syed Shabbir Pasha, assistant coach to Colm Toal in the Indian U-19 National squad. “If you make a plan, Pronoy will make sure it’s implemented. You will never see him shying away from big-bodied rival players. That makes him special. And his attitude is infectious.”
Uttam Rai, 15
Football is all about goals. There’s another striker from Sikkim who has been making the headlines off late – Uttam Rai.
Part of India’s triumphant squad in the AFC under-16 qualifiers in Tashkent where Uttam finished with six goals in four matches, including five in one match. Uttam was declared the ‘Player of the Year,’ among all categories in early 2011 at the IMG Academy in Florida.
Coach Bitan Singh, who was based in Florida along with Uttam and others, informs, “He scored more than 100 goals in the last calendar year. His mastery is never in doubt.”