For most football players, after toiling in the junior squads for years, they truly get a taste of first-team action when they turn 20. Not for Pratik Shinde. The 20-year-old midfielder has tasted the highs of playing football in the United States while suffering the despair of having to miss out an entire season last year. Now fully recovered, Shinde is ready to play a significant role in FC Pune City’s road towards championship glory.
We sit down to find out more about the youngest Indian footballer to get a contract to play in the United States:
How does it feel to have the opportunity to travel to the United States and play there?
Currently, I am in a contract with FC Pune City but before that I had a chance to play in the States. Playing in the U.S. was a completely different experience for me, you can imagine what it would be like over and over before arriving, but once you are there, it is a unique feeling - you cannot prepare for that.
Playing in the US gave me a chance to grow my skills, but more importantly, being a part of a new culture made me grow as a person. I will always be thankful for my time in the U.S. because it helped me launch my pro career.
As happy as those memories make me, that is part of my past and right now I am fully concentrating on what is to come in the future.
How well did you assimilate and play there?
It wasn’t too hard to assimilate on the field, the language of football is universal. What was tough was adapting to a different culture, different climate, different time zone but ultimately that's the professional lifestyle and you have to be able to adapt if you want to grow in your career.
Why did you decide to return to India? Did you get opportunities abroad?
I've always wanted to play professionally in India, it's been my dream. As a child, I always envisioned myself in front of my family and friends, so coming back to my roots was my primary focus at that time. I believed in the ISL project from the beginning and the signings of the likes of (Alessandro) Del Piero and (David) Trezeguet solidified that belief.
What do you think about the level of competition in the ISL?
Obviously with the addition of players like Del Piero, Trezeguet, and (Nicolas) Anelka, the league expectations were set very high and I think as players we all know we have to play to our very best and then some. Now, with names like Sunil Chhetri joining this season, it's only going to get even better.
There is quality football to be played and it will only get better.
What are your thoughts on foreign players in ISL?
I think adding players from other countries makes us global, and that's not a bad thing. It exposes India to the rest of the football world and gives us a platform to showcase Indian football in return. Perhaps the biggest impact for me was felt in practice, having David Trezeguet as a mentor had a huge impact and it gave me confidence when a guy like him praises the work ethic I bring to the field.
What are your aspirations for yourself and the team in the coming seasons?
My aspirations have not changed from the time I was a child dreaming of playing at the highest level. I want to grow and I want to show the world all that I have to offer. I am a football player and my job is executed on the field.
I would be dishonest if I didn't admit that I want more time on the field because I know that I am capable of making a difference. In order for all my dreams to come true, I need to be playing more, that is a priority for me right now and I have no doubt that I will make it come true.
What are your plans for the future?
Right now I am talking to different clubs around the world, it is an exciting time for me. I cannot go too much into details, but good things are in the works. However, I do need something special to come my way for me to leave ISL - I am happy there.
Does the pressure of getting this much media attention at such a young age get to you?
I'm not going to lie, it is a bit overwhelming, but I have great support from my family, my friends, and my fiancé. I try not to let it affect me. After all, it is part of the profession.
The football world needs the media as much as the media needs football. We are not enemies, I think the media is part of a bigger family - but just like in the best families in the world, sometimes there are disagreements but you are always able to forgive and move along.
Do you want to play abroad again?
I want to play at the highest level wherever it is offered to me, of course playing close to home is something I enjoy. Family is important, but I know that wherever this career takes me, it will be done with the best interest for my family in mind. So if the best opportunity is abroad - of course I would be open to the idea.
What do you think about the growth of the sport in the country? Do you think it will eventually reach get support the level of cricket?
I do not see any reason why it should not, I absolutely think it can. When I was in the U.S. and I got to talk to friends and fans, everyone told me they never thought football could be more popular than the NFL or baseball but it looks like in 20 years that could be a different story.
I think the same can be said for India. Football could be as big as Cricket, but it is our responsibility as Indian footballers to raise the level of the game here so that fans can be encouraged to support and more children can be drawn to the game at a younger age. Take Hockey as an example, we have seen the Indian team perform well at an international level. We can too. Let's put in the work to grow the game in India.