ISL 2017: Subrata Pal and the journey back home to Jamshedpur FC
On December 24, 1986, on the outskirts of the city of Kolkata, was born a young boy, who would later go on to achieve great things for his country. For Laxmi Pal, his mother, the boy’s birth was quickly accompanied with doubts.
Born into a poor family, the mother wondered how she could feed him and raise him, given the financial constraints. However, for the Pal family from Sodepur, there was never a doubt what their son Subrata would do when he grew up. Subrata’s love for the game was evident from a very young age and he was destined to become a footballer.
Laxmi Pal sacrificed immensely to fulfill all of her son’s needs in his quest to become a professional footballer. So imagine her relief when her son signed on the dotted line in the summer of 2004 for one of India’s biggest professional clubs, Mohun Bagan.
Having left home in 1999 for a stint at the Tata Football Academy, her son was back home and ready to stake his claim as one of the best goalkeepers around. And playing for the Green and Maroons was the first step in that direction.
However, tragedy soon struck the family on December 5, 2004, when Laxmi’s son was involved in an accident which claimed the life of Cristiano Junior, a Brazilian footballer. The occasion was the Federation Cup final and Mohun Bagan were up against Dempo Sports Club.
The club from Goa had taken the lead early on and were dominating the proceedings. Late on in the second half, a collision between Cristiano and Subrata claimed the life of the former.
So here was Subrata, nineteen days before his 18th birthday, facing the wrath of fans all around for the incident that had occurred. Cristiano had incidentally turned out for East Bengal the previous season and was hero for the fans. His death increased the animosity between the two clubs’ fans with many accusing the goalkeeper of killing the player.
Subrata returned home to Sodepur two days later and was promptly asked by his family to quit the game. This was a tough thing to bear so early on in one's life and Pal was advised to focus on other things.
His father did not want him to play football anymore. But Subrata displayed immense courage, desire and a sense of stubbornness, which has since gone on to characterise his career.
With the support of his namesake and Mohun Bagan legend, Subrata Bhattacharya, he made a comeback to the team and put on one spirited performance after another. The appointment of Bob Houghton as the national team coach also paid dividends. Bob quickly recognised his talent and rewarded Subrata for his performances at the U-23 level.
Having been called up to the national team in 2006, he took under a year to become a regular. Subrata was one of the star performers for the Indian team at the Nehru Cup along with the likes of Baichung Bhutia and Rennedy Singh. An NP Pradeep goal in the final clinched the maiden Nehru Cup title for India against Syria. A year later, Subrata Pal was instrumental once again in the AFC Challenge Cup triumph.
Standing on one end of the Ambedkar Stadium in the final, Subrata enjoyed what was the performance of a lifetime by Suni Chhetri at the other end. The glory days for Subrata had only begun. In 2009, he pulled off three crucial saves in the penalty shootout to deliver a second Nehru Cup for the country and in 2011, represented the country at the AFC Asian Cup where his heroics were widely praised.
Tragedy strikes again
In April 2017, news emerged that Subrata had failed a drug test. He was tested positive for Terbatuline, a drug banned by the World Anti Doping Agency. With weeks to go before the Indian Super League player draft, Pal was in a state of crisis. Not being bogged down by this news, Subrata decided to appeal and after a three-month struggle was eventually let off with a warning.
Clearly, he was never the one to easily accept defeat. At the club level, Pal had stints with a number of clubs including two abroad. However, the trials at Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Vestsjaelland did not yield dividends. Even the much publicised trial at Red Bull Leipzig did not garner a positive outcome. He came back to play for the Indian clubs.
Even at the national level, Pal has been away from the Indian team scene since Stephen Constantine’s appointment. A string of consistent performances by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had cemented his place in the national side. All in all, the past few years haven’t been professionally fruitful to the level that would have liked it to be.
Subrata Pal left home in 1999 for a trial at the Tata Football Academy. The story goes that by the time he had reached, the trials were already over. However, being the stubborn guy that he is, the former East Bengal and Pune FC goalkeeper slept outside the TFA gates, demanding a trial. His wish was eventually granted, and it was his TFA experience, which built him as a human being.
Having played in various cities across India, on July 23, 2017, Pal was given the chance to go back to the place where it all began. New entrants Jamshedpur FC picked up Subrata Pal for the upcoming ISL 2017 season, alongside a number of TFA graduates.
Having quietly contributed to Indian football since the days of Russi Modi when TFA was set up, it was time for the Tatas to enter the glitz and glamour stage of Indian football.
As you look at the players that have been picked up, one might agree that for majority of them, it is their one last stint under the spotlight. A case in point being former Salgaocar forward Ashim Biswas, who has almost faded into oblivion.
But the same cannot be said about the man from Sodepur. Subrata is only 30, and is surely vying for a place in the national side starting XI. With India playing the AFC Asian Cup after a span of eight years in 2019, Subrata can once again stake his claim to the national team.
If TFA was the starting point of Subrata Pal’s career, Jamshedpur FC is the start of the path to resurgence. It is only a matter of time before the “Spiderman” rescues the nation again.