What is common between European giants Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and defending Indian Super League Champions Chennaiyin FC? All three clubs’ official kit manufacturer is PUMA.
Chennaiyin FC roped in the German sportswear giants from this season and on their part, PUMA organized a meet and greet between fans and five Chennaiyin FC players. Bernard Mendy, Hans Mulder, Siam Hanghal, Mehrajuddin Wadoo, and Anirudh Thapa were at the PUMA store on Wednesday inside Phoenix Market City in Chennai.
With three more games to go, the defending champions are currently locked in a real battle with the other teams for a playoff spot in the 2016 season of the ISL. Despite their on-field exertions, the players took some time out between games to interact with fans and media.
The footballers walked into the store amid a stream of steady applause from those in attendance and after a while sat down for a Q&A session with local boy Suhail Chandhok, the voice of the Pro Kabaddi League.
During the subsequent interaction, the players gave their thoughts on a wide range of topics from football in India to the ISL as well as some of their personal goals and memorable moments.
A lot of people are playing football in Kashmir: Wadoo
Seasoned campaigner Mehrajuddin Wadoo has become a mainstay for Chennaiyin at the right-back position and the 32-year-old even led the side out as captain in a game earlier this season.
Wadoo put his drive for football even after all these years down to his work ethic. “When you are on the field, you have to give 100%. From childhood, that is what has been with me,” the veteran said.
He also spoke about how being champion means facing a lot of pressure saying, “When you are champion, everybody wants to take it from you.”
Wadoo brought up the topic of football in his region as well and the issues that plague it.
“Football is always the number one sport in my region. Despite Kashmir always being in the headlines for (certain) reasons, people are still playing football. What we lack is basic infrastructure, that is what we have to improve on. But in the coming years, if the infrastructure is good, I won't be surprised to see many players from my region playing in the ISL in future,” a passionate Wadoo said.
Thapa talks about his stint in France
Anirudh Thapa, one of the five youngsters from the AIFF Elite Academy picked up by Chennaiyin FC this season, spoke about how it was “a great feeling” for him to be here and play with the likes of Mendy and Mulder.
Along with a few others, Thapa had gotten the opportunity to go to France to train with Ligue 1 side FC Metz’s reputed academy ahead of this year's ISL season.
“I definitely didn't think it would come this early,” said Thapa on the opportunity to play football at this level.
Manipur lad Siam Hanghal is only 23, but he's already seen a lot of football at the top level. He was a part of a very successful Bengaluru FC side for three years before arriving in the ISL, first with NorthEast United and now sporting Chennaiyin colours.
An interesting backstory about Siam, he was amongst the first few Indian footballers to be signed up by PUMA for sponsorship.
“It was a great thing you know when I was signed by PUMA because they are one of the biggest brands in the world”, the Manipur man said of the honour.
Playing in midfield, like his idols Steven Gerrard and Zinedine Zidane, Hanghal has gotten a good run of games this season under his belt and had high praise for some of the foreign contingent at the club.
“Especially when it comes to the midfield, the foreign players help a lot”, said Hanghal.
Dutchman Hans Mulder has been here for every season of the ISL. After two seasons with the Delhi Dynamos, Mulder signed with Chennaiyin ahead of this season, a move that he says came about because of Chennaiyin coach Marco Materazzi’s keen interest in him.
He has seen the level of Indian footballers grow from first season to now. “What I like is that they don't complain, they always listen and they go 100%. When you go 100% and listen to good advice and keep you are going to be successful”, Mulder mentioned about the Indian players that he's played with.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the toughest player I’ve faced: Mendy
Frenchman Bernard Mendy, a huge fan favourite with supporters of the club, has been with Chennaiyin from the very beginning as a solid member of their defence. His bicycle kick goal in the first season against the Kerala Blasters will forever remain etched in the memory of fans. Mendy himself counted that moment as amongst the most memorable of his career.
With the departure of Elano, Mendy is now the club captain and the skipper spoke about this third season which has been a tough one.
“First year was difficult, second was much better, the third year has been much, much more difficult. You see the top team and the bottom team are very close”, said the defender who cited Cristiano Ronaldo as the toughest opponent he has ever had to defend.
“Sometimes we played good, sometimes not so much, but we always believe. You would have seen some games where we conceded goals because of mistakes. We believe we can do it and make the playoffs”, he went on to add.
Like Mulder, he too was very appreciative of willing and key to learn the young Indian footballers were.
The session also saw some fun moments when almost all of them unanimously pointed to Mendy as the guy who is always late to training, meetings and everything else. Youngster Thapa also revealed how frightened he was when he first met Chennaiyin coach Materazzi because of the reputation that preceded him.
After the engrossing discussion, the players fulfilled fans’ dreams by signing memorabilia for them and posing for pictures. A truly memorable afternoon for the huge crowd in attendance there.