Oscar Sonejee: A Champions League footballer, who was India's loss and Andorra's gain
At just 468 square kilometres, the land-locked state of Andorra is the sixth smallest country in Europe. Located in the Pyrenees mountains, the nation is sandwiched between Spain and France with a population of just 85,000 people. In fact, its total size is less than half of India’s smallest state, Goa. As you'd expect, the country’s contribution to the sporting world is limited. The football team are considered the continent’s whipping boys, with just three wins out of 138 international matches played since 1994.
The native language of the country is Catalan, with 95% of the national team consisting of home-grown players. However, for over a decade, there has been one player in the team not originating from Andorra, who traces his roots back to another under-performing footballing nation.
Oscar Sonejee Masand is not a household name in India, but his achievements within Andorra’s footballing universe give him a legitimate right to be called the finest player the nation has ever produced. Having brushed shoulders with the likes of Zindine Zidane, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale in a career spanning over 18 years, the 38-year-old has even trialled for Valencia
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Oscar greeted me over the phone in chaste Hindi: “Aap kaise hai? (How are you?)” Taken aback by his fluency in the language, I was immediately struck by how strange it was that an Indian had captained a European nation for 18 years without us having any knowledge about it back home.
Oscar, the youngest of three brothers, is the only one of them born and brought up in Andorra. This came about because of his parents' decision to migrate from Delhi to Spain in search of a better life. He said, “My father is a proper ‘Dilliwala’, as you would put it. He first went to Barcelona, before moving to the Pyrenees mountains; he realised that Barcelona was a far more tourist-based place and so moved here. The country got independence and he stayed on.
"I’m as Andorran as I’m Indian, actually. I speak fluent Hindi and Catalan, but struggle a bit with English. Nothing has given me more joy than representing my country for so many years.”
Due to its geographical location, Andorra is mostly known for its participation in winter sports such as skiing. The nation’s most notable sporting achievement came at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympics, with Joan Verdu Sanchez winning a bronze medal in Alpine skiing. Most school kids are introduced to winter sports at a young age, and that was the case with Oscar too.
But after playing football in sixth grade, he was hooked. The sport came naturally to him, and he progressed up the ranks of the school/university hierarchy, and eventually represented the country at the youth level.
He added, “I started my career with Sant Julia, a local club. I was immediately selected for the junior team; when I was in school, Andorra had just formed its football federation - back in 1994. So when I was a junior I was one of the first players in the national team. My performances were spotted by a Valencia scout and he invited me to trial for the Valencia youth squad. I didn’t make the cut, but it gave me a lot of confidence that I can play against the big boys. Within two years, I got my senior team call-up.”
The India-Andorra dilemma
By the age of 17, Oscar made his full senior international debut for Andorra in a 4-1 defeat against Estonia. Three days later, he announced himself to the whole nation by scoring his first goal, against Latvia.
At that time, Oscar wasn’t completely affiliated to Andorra as he did not own a native passport. He was told by the Andorra Football Federation (AFF) officials that if he wanted to continue to represent the country, he needed to obtain one. In other words, he was still eligible to play for India.
Oscar admitted, “If India came calling then I probably might have said yes, because most of my family is very close to India and I wouldn’t have said no to them because I would have loved to go and play for them. No one contacted me about this during the time.
"My father did bring it up whether I should go to India and have a chat. I used to keep going to India as well, for some wedding or the other. But since I saw nobody was interested, I decided to continue playing for Andorra, and obtained that passport.”
A glaring question arises from this admission: why was Oscar not offered a chance to represent India, when he was talented enough to go as far as the La Liga? It wasn’t even a case of him having to change his nationality or surrender his passport; he was essentially a free agent, who just needed an Indian passport to be eligible to play here. That's some food for thought for Indian football scouts.
A year later in 1998, Andorra would face world champions France in a heavy duty encounter. This was a Zidane-led France, which was fresh off a World Cup victory, looking to cement its place as the powerhouse of world football. Oscar himself was given the duty of marking Zidane.
“I must say it was quite an experience; getting a chance to mark Zidane as an 18-year-old was a special feeling. Marking him was difficult, but I got a few tackles in. It still remains one of my most memorable moments; there were things I learned from that game, that I applied till I retired,” is how Oscar reminisces about that match.
A central midfielder, Oscar has score four goals for his country. Perhaps the most important of those was the equaliser against Malta in 2000, which saw Andorra earn their first ever point in international football.
UEFA Champions League sojourn
Aside from his international career, Oscar has also had a relatively successful club career, boasting of four first round UEFA Champions League (UCL) appearances and two Europa League matches. But despite having several offers from abroad, he never took the foreign plunge.
He said, “I had several offers to move abroad, most notably offers from Finland and other Scandinavian countries. However, I was always waiting for the right offer. I’m a very family oriented person, and my family was here. I guess those are the inherent Indian values in me. Family means everything, so If I was going to move out it would be for the right offer.”
In 2008, a few Indian clubs such as East Bengal and Churchill Brothers came to know about ‘the Indian playing in Andorra’, and jumped for his signature.
“I was approached by both these clubs just after one of my UCL matches; a couple of Indian agents based in Germany approached me regarding a move. My family and I were really excited and as it turns out, two clubs were interested in me. I signed for East Bengal in the beginning, but after much deliberation, we decided for a Goa move, because the culture was more European there, would be easier for me to adjust," he said.
But there was a twist in the tale that would end up preventing the dream move from ever coming to fruition. "The previous contract was not officially cancelled, and I ended up having a double contract. So the situation kept moving along forward, to a point where I decided to sign for an Andorran club FC Santa Coloma. I (probably) should have stuck with East Bengal, but no regrets,” he added.
The Andorran Primera Diviso clubs also compete in leagues such as the Spanish third division, due to the small number of teams playing the sport there. The level of football is often boosted by world-class players, such as 2010 World Cup winter Joan Capdevila, who plies his trade for Oscar’s old club Santa Coloma. So the Andorran players are also frequently found playing alongside these foreign stars, not just facing them.
Football in Andorra
In 2008, Oscar famously got into an altercation with Wayne Rooney during a World Cup qualifier. He said, “It was very difficult to mark Rooney; you know, he is a very physical player, so one has to be equally physical with him. We just had a major disagreement about something and verbally fought it out. Happens on a football field from time to time.
Who is the toughest player he's ever played against? "I think apart from Rooney, Partrick Kluivert is the most difficult player I’ve played against. He had the perfect mix of pace and strength, which made him very dangerous. Even Gareth Bale, he is probably the fittest player I know,” came Oscar's reply.
Now in the 22nd year of its existence, the Andorran national team is currently ranked 193rd in the world, but has never been able to enter the top 170. Oscar feels that the basic infrastructure here is insufficient for the sport to grow. He said, “I think the biggest problem is that we don’t have any stadiums whatsoever, we maybe have 3-4 good stadiums. So that kind of infrastructure has to be built, otherwise it will be very difficult. I know that we are not in a continent which will go easy on us, but we can’t keep playing victim either. Our main goal should be to break into the world 150, and for that we must invest more into the game.”
Needless to say, the population of Oscar's country is among the least in the world; India’s capital New Delhi is five times the size of Andorra. And ironically, India is yet to produce a player with Champions League experience, despite having the chance to get such a player two decades ago.
While Oscar’s success as an Andorran football was completely overlooked by India, an induction of European football experience within the national coaching hierarchy is still an option.
Now in his final year of football, Oscar has returned to Sant Julia, his youth club, and dreams of being a coach very soon. He said, “I’ve finished my FIFA A and B badges, I’m just waiting for my pro batch, after which I want to coach in Asia. Could be anywhere - India, UAE, Japan - anywhere is fine with me. I wouldn’t mind coaching the Andorran team some day as well, when I feel I’m good enough to fill that position. My wife is a pakka Mumbaikar from Bandra, and I wouldn’t mind going back to India at all, if the right opportunity comes along.”
Last year, Oscar hung up his international boots after a 0-1 home defeat to Saint Kitts and Nevis, ending his career with 106 caps - that makes him the second highest capped Andorran player in history. His success in a remote country of Europe highlights how vast India's talent pool really is; if someone is willing to search with a keen eye, gems can be unearthed in the unlikeliest of places.