Football in India is evolving at a steady pace – Abhishek Ambekar
In a conversation with former I-League champion and Mumbaikar Abhishek Ambekar, he opens up about his professional football comeback after a gap of three years. He also shares his thoughts on his journey from a local boy in Mumbai to winning the I-League and playing for multiple top Indian teams.
How did you start your journey in the footballing world?
I was keen on football since I was a kid. I used to play many local tournaments in Mumbai. Then one day, one of my friends from the local tournament told me about a trial for Air India, this was around the Xth standard. I got selected in Air India U-19, and that’s how my journey began in professional football. Special thanks to Yusuf sir and Godfrey sir under whom I got to learn and grow.
How difficult was it for you to take a break from football and go for a government job? And while doing your job, did you completely leave football?
To begin with, I would like to say that I never left football completely, even when I was working at RBI. And yes, it was a tough choice for me as I had family pressure to take up the job. We belong from a middle-class family, so they always thought about job security; hence it was a tough choice, and I took the job.
After taking up the opportunity, I never thought of keeping my aspiration at bay. I kept playing after office hours with my friends on local grounds. I always pursued the sport whenever my schedule permitted.
During those years, I played Santosh Trophy and the Mumbai League for the RBI team. We also won the MDFA First Division and got promoted to the Super Division. I got the best player award in the first division and was very happy. So basically, all these things kept me in the game.
While doing your job how did you maintain the momentum to pursue a career in football again? Was it easy? What difficulties did you face?
To be honest, it was not that difficult, because I always had my interest in football and I never stopped playing. During the off-seasons, all my friends who played professionally used to play together. So the decision to go for Minerva Punjab trials was not that difficult, and I was ready for it. When I went for the trials, they knew have played the I-League with Mumbai and Air India so they knew my talent and signed me. And that’s how my come back incepted.
But when I was playing for RBI, the sight of viewing my teammates play professionally and getting featured on live television motivated me to push my limits. I kept my focus and believed in the process.
My dream was still alive to play in the big leagues, and when you stay focused on your goal the universe aligns itself. That’s what I believe.
How did you manage your job and football together?
All thanks to the RBI rule, which came that year. It allowed the players who were recruited through sports to play and continue their job at the same time, and this was the time I heard about the Minerva Punjab trial, which allowed me to play professionally again. This rule helped me a lot to shape my career.
When you work hard, you get results for sure, so I just kept my head down, and everything came my way, and I took the opportunity!
Was your family supportive throughout your journey?
Yes, my parents supported me from the beginning. You know when my friends used to visit me and told me they were injured for a whole season, it created doubts for my parents. That is why my family thought I should go for a secured job and continue football alongside. That’s what I did in the end, because you never know what can happen in football.
Tell us your pathway in getting selected for Minerva Punjab FC? What was the feeling of gaining the title in the same year?
Back then, Minerva was an upcoming side and that team allowed the upcoming players who wanted to prove themselves. That way, Mr Ranjit Bajaj signed me and gave me a platform to perform.
That was a dramatic year, the toughest pre-season I have ever been to but those things helped us to become the strongest in terms of fitness, and hence we won the title. I was the only defender with 3 assists, one of my best seasons. We didn’t have any star player by our side, but the chemistry and bonding between players helped us win matches!
How was your time with the most celebrated clubs in India – East Bengal and Mohan Bagan? You have played 7 derbies so how was your experience?
Derbies were the most significant games I have ever played, the most-watched match in India. Crazy fanbase and it was amazing to be a part of that game. The best experience I ever had. The week before derbies was very intense; there was a lot of pressure and expectations. The team practice sessions were different for these matches, there’s a different environment than a regular match.
Playing the derbies were like a dream to me. In Kolkata I got to learn many things from my coaches and the team and players were fantastic.
The most unusual thing was the dressing room, it stayed awkwardly quiet during these matches. You know everyone felt that pressure. But that pressure helped us to perform better.
What made you move to Sudeva Delhi, and what’s different here than the other teams?
I went to Sudeva for more game time, and it was good to play here because I made a good friend circle. This team is filled with youngsters and no foreigners, but still, we performed well and gave tough competition to the other teams. But football in India is evolving, there’s no difference now between foreigners and Indian players; both are on the same level.
This was not the case earlier when I joined Air India, there was a quiet a difference in the quality of foreign players, but eventually, I guess local players are becoming better and better.
After achieving so much, what message would you like to give to the upcoming football aspirants?
Just stay focused, keep working hard and enjoy your game!
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