Sport helps break various social barriers but often those obstacles in society tend to hold back aspiring sportspersons from achieving their dream. Quite often in India, poverty stops talented youngsters from pursuing a sporting career. There are some exceptional individuals though who continuously fight against poverty, yet reach their goal and become an example to follow. 17-year-old Pratik Shinde is one such exception.
The teenager from Chembur, Mumbai, comes from a very modest background and has already made history by becoming the youngest Indian footballer to earn a professional contract abroad. Pratik achieved this in 2011 when at the age of 15, he landed a contract with Texas-based Galveston Pirates, a semi-professional team in USA’s fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).
But the entire journey from the slum areas of Chembur to Galveston, Texas was long and tedious for Pratik as despite earning a contract with the US club, he didn’t have funds to purchase air tickets and was also initially denied visa.
Pratik, a central midfielder who idolises Paul Scholes, needed support from the football fraternity in India. That, according to him, never came and instead it was the media coverage that eventually brought him a saviour in Buldana Urban Co-Operative Society Limited as they sponsored his trip to the US, visa and insurance.
That allowed Pratik to realise his ‘American Dream’ as he played in the NPSL for Galveston with most of his teammates and opponents being a lot older than him. The end of his work permit saw him return to India but Pratik is now set play in USA for a second time.
Galveston Pirates were re-branded as Houston Hurricanes FC in December last year with owner Brendan Keyes, who gave Pratik the chance to play in USA, also having relocated. Thus, Keyes was quick to contact Pratik again and eventually signed him for the new franchise.
Pratik’s entire stay in USA during his time at Galveston was sponsored by Keyes and he also stayed with Keyes and his family. The Mumbai lad will do that again while playing for Houston Hurricanes and thus, can’t thank Irishman Keyes enough.
“I owe everything to Mr. Keyes for giving me another opportunity again,” the soft-spoken Pratik told Sportskeeda.
However, Pratik revealed that he is again struggling to purchase air tickets but remains hopeful of eventually getting a sponsor.
“It is very difficult to get funds. Last time, I tried contacting both the AIFF and WIFA but they ignored me completely. It was only thanks to media coverage that my problem came to the attention of some people and eventually I got a sponsor,” an upset Pratik stated.
After playing the beautiful game for fun initially, Pratik started taking the sport seriously when he was 11 and was taken to the Kenkre Football Academy in Mumbai by a teacher in his school Adarsha Vidyalaya.
But it was at Andheri Football Academy (AFA), under coach Malay Sengupta that Pratik started to consider football as a serious career option. He excelled for AFA in various age-group tournaments and got selected in the U-14 team of Steadfast Academy, who were India’s representatives in the highly rated Gothia Cup youth tournament in Sweden.
Pratik caught the eye of several scouts and coaches in that tournament including Keyes and thus, the Manchester United fan rejected an offer to play for Air India’s youth team because he and his mentor Malay Sengupta could sense that he could already have a career abroad.
Spanish fourth division team Alcobendas CF wanted to sign Pratik but financial constraints tragically stopped that move. However, Keyes kept in touch with Pratik and the Indian youngster sealed that historic move to USA after a video conference on Skype.
“It was an experience of a lifetime but I want it only to be the start,” Pratik stated with determination.
He will be wearing the number ‘21’ jersey for Houston Hurricanes and is expected to be there sometime in April, although he’s still struggling to find a sponsor for his trip. For now, Pratik is training daily to remain fit but will also give his class 11 exams before leaving for USA.
“The season there starts in May and I am really looking forward to it. This time, I want to perform even better and repay the faith Mr. Keyes has showed in me. But I am serious about my studies as well because I know how important education is,” Pratik added.
Pratik’s family has had to work very hard to ensure even the bare minimum for him and that remains the youngster’s biggest motivation to fight every obstacle and reach his goal.
However, the difficulties that Pratik has faced so far already has made him realise something. “No, I don’t intend to play in the I-League. There is not much scope here,” he said.
Although not harbouring any I-League dreams, Pratik is a huge fan of Bhaichung Bhutia and dreams of playing for the Indian national team one day. For now, he wants to continue his ‘American Dream’ but quickly needs a sponsor for the same.