On 5 October 2016, 17-year-old Ishan Pandita put pen to paper for LaLiga side Leganes’ U-19 squad. Little did he know then that he was on the cusp of history.
The teenager went on to become the first-ever Indian footballer to sign for a Juvenil A side, the top tier of youth football in Spain. The Bengaluru-based striker has spent almost half a decade in Spain, honing his skills to become a first-team player in the country’s Tercera division (3rd division).
However, despite attracting interest from various Segunda division (Spanish 2nd tier) sides, the 21-year-old remains an unheralded player back home. That is particularly surprising given how India is yearning for a striker to replace the ageing captain Sunil Chhetri.
Currently plying his trade for Lorca FC (which has produced three Indian Super League exports including current captain Gabriel Cichero), Pandita is at a crossroads. Before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he had offers from two Spanish second division sides, which would've taken him further up the country’s footballing hierarchy. But with Spain badly hit by the virus, Pandita might be forced to return to India.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Pandita said:
"You know the thing is, it's changing every day here. I didn’t initially want to come back because things were going good; it had taken me a long time to get used to the country’s football culture and pace, but I was finally there.
"Now with the situation getting worse every day, I might have to return to India and I am considering playing either in the I-league and ISL for a year if the situation doesn’t get better. If you ask me, the pace here is way faster; not to undermine the Indian league, but I can feel I’m getting better and opportunities are opening up for me."
Coached by Espanyol and Deportivo La Coruna legend Walter Pandiani, Pandita has been the first-choice striker in the 2019-20 season so far, even outscoring Paul Pogba’s brother Mathias. He has played 25 out of the 27 games played in the Tercera division and scored six goals in the process, the highest in his team.
Pandiani sees a younger version of himself in Pandita, and has stated that the pacey striker is destined for big things in the future.
During his initial days with Leganes, Pandita had the opportunity to play against the likes of Rayo Vallecano, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. But after suffering a meniscus tear in his knee he was forced to take a seven-month break for treatment, before starting afresh again.
In fact, prior to his Leganes' tenure, he was with Almeria's (former La Liga team) U-18 team, but couldn't compete because of an age restriction on Non-Europeans below the age of 18.
After several trial stints with various clubs, he was signed up by then Segunda division side Club Gimnastic de Tarragona in the U-23 team, on a five-month contract. Pandita was then loaned out to their affiliate club Pobla de Mafumet in Spain’s Tercera division, but he made only one appearance for them.
"Younger players were getting a chance ahead of me. Almost every player goes through this phase in their career, where things might not work out. So you have to deal with it," said Pandita
"Personally, it was a learning experience for me, but you learn from it all. I was deprived of confidence, but as a player, you take it on the chin and keep on moving."
n July 2019 Pandita was offered a one-month trial by Lorca FC, where he impressed Pandiani enough to secure a first-team spot. And within just two weeks of starting his senior career Pandita scored his first goal, against Deportiva Minera.
Since then he has added five more goals to the kitty and even attracted an offer from a former LaLiga side that is currently pushing for promotion to the first division. But he rejected the offer, much to the displeasure of his father Neeraj.
“I pushed him to take that offer; it was a lucrative one, and they were offering him a chance to play for the U-23 team, which is one step below," Neeraj told Sportskeeda. "I don’t want to reveal the name of the team. But he did not want to give up first-team football, plus he was learning so much under Walter."
Pandita has already taken major career decisions in order to maximize his time with Pandiani. That's not exactly a surprise though, since he considers the Uruguayan to be his mentor.
"Would an Indian footballer say no to training under Sunil Chhetri? That’s the same level that Walter has played at if not more," Pandita said. "He is such a great human being. Especially after my previous experience, I can only say that playing under Walter I’ve learned more than any other coach.
"He gets down to the absolute details to teach me everything that he can. In hindsight, yes I should have taken up that offer, but the amount of learned under Walter is unquestionable."
No national camp call-up yet
How does an Indian footballer getting offers from Segunda division teams and earning rich praise from an international football legend not earn a single national team call-up? Let alone a senior team chance, Pandita has never even been invited to a national team camp or trial.
Here is an Indian player making a name for himself in Spain, but not being given a chance to trial for the Indian national team. That sounds particularly incongruous when you consider that players from his division are playing in the ISL.
India does not have a replacement for Chhetri or even for Jeje Lalpekhlua, who is far from his prime. Over the national team’s last 12 matches, only one goal (out of 10) has come from a striker not named Chhetri. Which is why it makes little sense for someone with Pandita’s pedigree to not get a chance at the senior level.
Neeraj said, "I don’t know if you ask me frankly. The authorities (AIFF) know him, but he is yet to get a call up. Right now India needs to create a bench strength of attackers, (and) it's very sad to see that there is no replacement for Chhetri. Moving forward I'm hopeful that he will be called for a national camp."
Ishan for his part is convinced that he is in the right place, and that he will be ready whenever the time comes to go the national route.
"You know I’m doing this in Spain so that I can learn something others aren’t," he said. "The money might not be as good as India, but the skill level is way higher here. Of course, it's my dream to represent my national team; if and when it happens, I will be ready."
India’s other options include an ageing Balwant Singh, an inexperience Jobby Justin who is yet to prove himself in ISL and Doungel, who looks like national team coach Igor Stimac’s go-to man if Chhetri is not available. With no new faces in the national team setup, it’s about time a fresh face with international experience gets a fair chance.
Now that Pandita might be forced to return to India due to the coronavirus pandemic, the national scouting network would have to start working overtime.Published 08 Apr 2020, 00:21 IST