From the farms of Walve Khurd to the ISL: The incredible journey of Sukhdev Patil
“In my village of Walve Khurd in Kolhapur district, people don’t understand football. But now because of me, many of the villages in Kholapur are watching football,” says the youngster seated across me with a beaming smile.
“At first I got a call saying you have been chosen by FC Goa. I was thrilled; in fact, I don’t think I can explain how I felt. It was just special. It was difficult to believe the news, that I would get a chance to play in the ISL.”
Firm-footed yet shy, Sukhdev Patil is slowly but surely learning the ropes of what it takes to be a professional footballer. That includes not only making his mark on the field but also being comfortable with the media around him. The constant flashes, the not-so-polite questions – life as a pro is not an easy job for a teenager.
“I come from a very small village in Kolhapur. My mother and father are farmers, with a very small plot of land. And if I had not experienced football, I would be a farmer as well. (Sigh!)”
A humble background
“I really like bikes and bike rides.” The very mention of two-wheelers has Sukhdev glowing. But a few years ago, his dream of buying a bike looked just that – a dream.
Born into poverty, in a village where not many know about football let alone watch it, the story of Sukhdev is one worthy of a biopic – if and when a Bollywood producer takes notice.
In Kolhapur, leather is more famous for being moulded into chappals than into footballs. But Sukhdev is a testament to the fact that India is filled to the brim with untapped potential.
“I initially didn’t know anything about football. I got introduced to this sport when I joined Krira Prabodhani in Balewadi, Pune.
“Out of the many games that they taught us, football was what I chose.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
His goal of becoming a professional athlete was firmly brought on track after he impressed in the trials at DSK Academy in Balewadi, Pune. Having gone to the trials for the U17s, he was selected for the U19s because of his superior abilities. And from there, the road to the future began to be laid down.
However, it was not until 2012 that Sukhdev really made concrete plans regarding a career in the sport. This was the year that a then 18-year-old Sukhdev got his chance in the second division of the I-League.
“It was a turning point with regard to my career. It helped boost my confidence and made me realise I wanted to become a professional footballer,” quipped the custodian.
A family that gave up everything
“I come from a financially poor background, (because of) which I didn’t get a chance to study. I had a lot of expenses being away from my family to learn football, for which my sister made the biggest sacrifice – by giving up her education.
She did not continue her college degree as my family couldn’t support her education, my expenses and the household expenses,” says a sombre Sukhdev. “And for that, I will always be grateful to her; she is my motivation to reach greater heights in football.”
Sukhdev’s rise to prominence would never have come to pass if not for his family and the support they provided, both in terms of spirit as well as finance.
"To reach to this spot here in ISL, I had to work really hard. I had a lot to learn and prove to be the best. There were no prizes for second spot," says the steely goalkeeper.
That task of proving to be the best required long periods of travelling and time away from the family. And with his village not having a railway station to call its own, the reunions would be few and far between.
However, all the pain seems to have paid off, with Sukhdev headed for a promising future – he has just signed an I-League contract with Mumbai FC.
"My parents were very supportive even though they didn’t understand the game initially. And now that I play they have big aspirations for me that I grow to become a great footballer and earn my name in football for India."
The journey to the ISL
Sukhdev doesn’t stand out with his build or presence; at least not yet. But his story certainly does. And in his own words, “It was tough, but it was worth it.”
He has come a long way from being a ball boy in the I-League. He has gone from handing out balls to the players from the sidelines to rubbing shoulders with the best in the business; the ISL was an opportunity that Sukhdev just couldn’t pass up.
“I had the opportunity to work with Kattimani, Subhasish Roy Chowdhury and a coach like Zico. It was an opportunity I could not miss, and there was not much to think before signing on the dotted lines.”
Scouted and signed up by FC Goa, the goalkeeper got his first taste of the big league this season. But he knows there is a long way to go yet. And whilst he failed to get any playing time, he relished the opportunity of picking the brains of the best that Indian football has to offer.
“Pre-season of the ISL was great, and the practice sessions were really educating. In Brazil, I learnt a lot during training. Kattimani and Subhasish Roy supported and guided me. It was a great learning experience.
“My confidence has had a real boost and the experience will take me ahead in my career path.”
An unfinished story...
When FC Goa came to town whilst the ISL was on, the media went into a frenzy to catch hold of their stars. Lucio, the captain of the team and a former World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002 would, of course, be the name everyone looked out for; he would provide the quotes that would make their job that much easier for one more day.
The story when the team arrived at Kolkata pretty much followed the script, except that Lucio wasn’t there. Out with an injury, the Brazilian wasn’t at the practice session.
And while the journos went looking for the next big name, Sukhdev spent his time honing his skills in a corner of the field, knowing that his job is far from finished.
“I am a big fan of Manuel Neuer. I want to be like him,” reveals the teenager. And whilst the dream might seem far-fetched to many, for Sukhadev, it is dreams like these, backed by his iron-clad will, that have brought him where he is today.
In the world of the ISL, a name like his has every chance to get lost amongst the former World Cup winners and the presence of the Bollywood stars. But his steely focus has been unwavering amid all the glitz and glamour.
For Sukhdev, the space between the two sticks is his sanctuary. And whilst he is still a long way to even challenge for a spot in the national team, he is certainly on the right path.
...but already an inspiring one
Patil is now a household name in his parts. And that fact in itself brings a smile to his face.
“The minute they hear the name Sukhdev Patil, it is associated with football,” quips the youngster. “Because of this, I get a lot of respect and I am known now because of the league. I aspire to be one of the top goalkeepers and create a name for myself in the country. I want to play for the top teams in India as well as the senior Indian team. ISL helped me improve; I believe that this league will help me fulfil my aim of being a top goalkeeper. And I’m positive that my goal of playing for the Indian senior team will be realised.”
Some moments in your life that get etched deep into your heart forever. One of those moments for me came in 2000, when Russell Crowe stepped on to the podium to receive his first and only Academy award. The dying moments of his speech still echo inside me.
“To the suburbs of anywhere, a dream like this seems vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable. But this moment is directly connected to all those childhood imaginings and anybody who is on the downside of advantage and relying purely on courage... it's possible.”
Sukhdev is the very embodiment of that speech, of those “childhood imaginations”.
He might not be Manuel Neuer, and chances are that he will never reach that level. But he doesn’t have to! He has already proven his ability to overcome all the odds. His path has led us to believe that with perseverance and hard work, it is indeed possible.