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A happy homecoming for stars

Several I-League players have returned to Tamil Nadu to be part of the squad that’s participating in the Santosh Trophy

PHOTO: S. THANTHONI

CLUBS HONE THEIR GAME (From left) Ravanan, Mohanraj, Kulothungan and Pradeep at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium

With Tamil Nadu hosting the Santosh Trophy after a ten-year gap, it is something of a homecoming for members of the host team’s squad whose presence in the rosters of I-League clubs has seen them spend large chunks of their football careers away from Chennai.

This season, seven members of the Tamil Nadu squad are based in I-League clubs. Traditionally, Tamil Nadu players haven’t been a major presence in the I-League (or its previous avatar, the National Football League). “The talent is there, but not too many are willing to take risks,” says Mahindra United centre-back Dhanraj Ravanan, referring to the reluctance of players to leave behind job appointments with institutional clubs and sign I-League contracts. A job at a club like Indian Bank, such as the one held by Ravanan before he left in 2004 for Dempo, guarantees footballers a steady income even after their careers end, unlike the lucrative but shorter-term contracts at professional clubs in the I-League. “Not only that, you sacrifice time spent with your family — you get only a month off in a year to come back and meet them.”

Good experience

The trade-off, however, appeals to the ambitious footballer. “Playing for Dempo at 21 was a very good experience because they gave me a first eleven chance immediately,” says Ravanan. “The very next season, I got an offer from Mohun Bagan, and I thought, why not? I gained a lot of experience at a young age, against international players. Even in practice, I learnt a lot from guys like (Mohun Bagan defender) Deepak Mondal.”

“The big difference for me was how the senior players played,” says midfielder M. Pradeep, who left Sports Authority of India last year to join Mumbai FC. “There, they know when to slow the game down, when to speed it up. Here, most guys play at the same tempo throughout. The other thing is the preparation levels — tactics, and things like fitness and diet. The professional clubs take that more seriously.”

Tamil Nadu skipper Kalia Kulothungan chips in: “People — family, friends — told me it’s safer to remain here, there’s more security. But I always dreamt of playing for the three big Calcutta clubs — East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohamedan Sporting — and I’ve managed to accomplish that!”

Kulothungan, who played for Customs and ICF in Chennai, left as a 21-year-old for FC Kochin in 2001. Since then, the midfielder enjoyed spells at East Bengal, Mahindra United, Mohammedan Sporting and Mumbai FC, before sealing an offer that will see him play for Mohun Bagan next season.

On playing in Kolkata, he says, “The crowds in Kolkata are crazy. For them, it’s the club, not the player, that matters — so if Bhaichung Bhutia is playing for East Bengal, they (East Bengal fans) will all yell ‘Bhaichung, Bhaichung’, but if he’s playing for Mohun Bagan...” he chuckles, envisioning the response he’s likely to get from East Bengal fans as he strides out for the first time next season in the green and maroon of their fiercest rivals.

Incidentally, Kulothungan will be one of four players from Tamil Nadu in Mohun Bagan’s squad next season. Ex-Pune FC winger Santhakumar is another new signing, while the others are incumbents Anandavasan and Nallappan Mohanraj, the last of whom is part of the Tamil Nadu Santosh Trophy squad.

Remarkable story

The rise to prominence of Namakkal-born Mohanraj is a quite remarkable story. Playing for Sports Authority of India in Chennai, the left back struggled initially to create an impression.

“I went for the under-16 and under-19 state selections, and didn’t get selected for either. After that, I went for a trial at the Tata Football Academy, and didn’t get through. But Carlton Chapman, the assistant coach there, told me I had a good left foot, and sent me for a trial at (I-League second division side) HAL, Bangalore. Finally, the HAL coach Krishnaji Rao gave me my chance.” After his stint at HAL, Mohanraj signed for Mohun Bagan at the beginning of the 2007-08 season, and has since earned a place in the 27-member National squad due to undergo a preparatory camp next month for the AFC Asian Cup. “The basic thing is to keep working hard,” says Mohanraj. “Sometimes you’ll have a good season, sometimes there are disappointments. All you can do is to continue working on your game.”

KARTHIK KRISHNASWAMY

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