t was humid Saturday evening in Mumbai and the final of the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League between Kerala Blasters and ATK was underway at the DY Patil Stadium. Clad in a brown t-shirt, Rahul Bheke sat with three of his friends cheering for the Iain Hume-led Blasters. The tie went right down to the wire and a Mohammed Rafique header in the last minute of stoppage time led ATK to the title.
Little did Bheke know, who was playing under Khalid Jamil for Mumbai FC at the time, that four years later he would score a last-gasp header to guide Bengaluru FC to its maiden ISL title at the Mumbai Football Arena.
“It's been a memorable few days, we were waiting for this moment. We wanted to win the ISL from last year and we did it this year and I was happy that I scored in the final. We are the champions now and are enjoying the moment,” a laidback Bheke tells Sportstar from his residence in Navi Mumbai.
Rahul Bheke and friends watch the final of inaugural edition of the Indian Super League. - RAHUL BHEKE
The season gone by has been a particularly tough one for Bheke. Despite regular solid performances for Bengaluru, where he played in multiple roles across the breadth of the pitch, he failed to make the national team for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. He put the snub behind him and continued to focus on club football, but faced a massive setback when his father passed away in January.
Enter coach Carles Cuadrat.
The Spaniard has worked with Bheke over the last two seasons and offered him some much-needed assurance. “He generally doesn't talk much. When my father expired, he spoke to me when I came back and told me 'You can take your own time to join the team. You are part of my plan, so you will be playing all the games. There's nothing to worry about.' He understood the situation,” recalls Bheke.
“I did not start the game against Kerala Blasters (on February 06), and Carles told me that he didn't want me to start because I was out for 3-4 days and didn't want me to pick up an injury. But he told me before the game that if needed, he will use me. We were trailing 0-2 and at half time, and he told me we need you and I was mentally prepared. We drew the game 2-2 and I was really happy that he believed in me that time too,” he adds.
The 28-year-old was a part of the Bengaluru defence that conceded two goals off set pieces in last years final and credits Carles for turning things around this time around. “We were working on set-pieces for a long time. We scored most of our goals this season through set-pieces and we had planned some different types of set-pieces for the final. We have to thank coach Carles because he is brilliant with set-pieces,” he says in one breath.
Bheke remains grounded even when the spotlight is shining bright on him. When quizzed if he's got plans of inking his body, a path that most footballers take after a title win, he says “no, no. I have no plans of getting a tattoo, I'm not that a big fan of them.”
He might have no ideas of getting a permanent tattoo just yet, but he will forever be referred to as India's "Bhekenbaur".