Timesnownews.com caught up with one of India's rising football talents Abneet Bharti, who plays for Sport Uniao Sinestre in Portugal and is among the very few Indian footballers who are playing in Europe.
The number of Indian footballers who have played for foreign clubs over the years is quite less, with national team stalwarts such as Bhaichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri, and most recently, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu having had stints abroad. Aiming to add to the list is 20-year-old defender Abneet Bharti, who has played professional football in Spain and Portugal, and is now eyeing the Indian jersey as well.
Born in Kathmandu, Bharti has played youth football in India and Singapore, before signing for Spanish side Real Valladolid in 2014, where he progressed up the youth ranks. At the age of 16, he was offered a professional contract by a Polish first division side but he opted to head back to Spain to continue his development.
In January 2017, he was signed by Sport Uniao Sinestre - a club in the third division in Portugal managed by former Portuguese international Luis Boa Morte, where he has made 13 appearances and made his debut against Sporting Lisbon B. He was named as one of the best U21 Asian players in the world by calciomercato.com earlier this year and is on the road to making a return to competitive football after suffering a crucial ligament injury.
Timesnownews.com caught up with the young defender in Delhi, where he talked about his ambitions, his experience playing in Spain and Portugal, and his hopes of playing for India among other things. Here are a few excerpts:
How has it been playing in so many different countries?
It's nice. I have played in India, Singapore and then Spain and Portugal. The last two are practically the same but it has been a great experience so far.
What are the key differences according to you in the way clubs are run in India and in Europe?
In Europe, the clubs are more professional and the people employed there actually know their football. In India, I have heard a few negative things. However there, the clubs try to take care of all the small things you could ask for. So that makes a difference.
What is the perception of an Indian footballer out there?
If you are Indian, you have to work two or three times harder than a domestic footballer there. In fact, any foreigner has to work harder. They have seen you play but they have an image in their minds that you cannot play football. They don't know any Indian players, perhaps the most knowledgeable ones know about Sunil Chhetri maximum. So, you have to work extra hard.
What style of player do you consider yourself to be? Who are the players you model your game around?
I'm most comfortable at centre-back. I have been described as an athletic defender and fast for a centre-back. Thanks to my speed, I can also play down the right flank as a right-back. I have good technique on the ball and though I may not be too tall, my height is adequate for me to succeed in my position.
As far as players are concerned, I would say I would like to play like Toby Alderweireld and perhaps Laurent Koscielny.
How has it been playing under Luis Boa Morte - someone who has played in the Premier League for the likes of Arsenal and West Ham United?
It has been very good playing under him. I spoke to him while signing for Sintrense and he really trusts me on and off the pitch. I can go to his office at any time. He is always the first at training and a very professional and humble person.
Have you been in touch with the Indian national team manager Stephen Constantine or anyone from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) regarding a place in the Indian team?
No, I have never been in touch with anyone from the AIFF. I find it shocking and people abroad are also surprised at the fact. It shows on Transfermarkt and Wikipedia that I have played for the India U23 team. However, that is incorrect and I have never represented India at any level.
I actually had something from Nepal to play for their national team but I did not say yes as I don't feel Nepali. My parents are Indian, I have an Indian passport, so I want to play for India.
What are your thoughts on the Indian national team?
I don't visit India too often, to be honest. It's very good that the team has qualified for the Asian Cup. I want to play for the team but this season I don't have any expectations since I have been injured. I was disappointed last season but this time around, I just want to get fit and back to playing regularly again.
You're one of the few Indians who has played football in a foreign league - are you in touch with the likes of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who have also played in Europe?
I was in touch with Gurpreet and had a few words with him when I moved to Spain. I've also spoken to Indian youngsters such as Jerry (Lalrinzuala) and Bodo (Baoringdao), and we speak once in a while, thanks to social media.
Have you received any offers from any Indian club? Do you plan to return to play here?
There was contact from an Indian Super League (ISL) club but I am not looking at the financial aspect of things as of now. It is not the main goal for me. Right now, ISL clubs can attract you with good financials but people and coaches have told me that I have what it takes to succeed in Europe.
I am young, so it doesn't make sense for me to return. Coming back to India would be a step back for me.
5 years from now - where do you see yourself?
Playing regularly in a top division in Europe. I am confident that it will happen.