Arindam Bhattacharya — At home in East Bengal

After winning the Golden Glove last year and finishing runner-up with ATK Mohun Bagan, goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya put pen to paper to join SC East Bengal for the Indian Super League 2021-22 season. It’s a club that enjoys staunch support from his family.

Making progress: Arindam Bhattacharya feels that the art of goalkeeping has evolved drastically in India and so has the quality of football.   -  Special Arrangement

For as long as Arindam Bhattacharya can remember, generations of his family have supported East Bengal. Fate, however, never brought Arindam to the Red and Gold brigade. He played for Goa’s Churchill Brothers, Mumbai City, Bengaluru FC, Pune City and even ATK Mohun Bagan, but somehow never quite found his way to East Bengal.

Until 2021.

After winning the Golden Glove last year and finishing runner-up with ATK Mohun Bagan, the veteran goalkeeper put pen to paper to join SC East Bengal for this Indian Super League season. He will also captain the side.

“After I left ATKMB it was very late and most teams had already chosen their goalkeepers. I didn’t have too many options. I took time because I knew I could sign just before the league began since I was a free player. Until the last minute, I did not know where I was going to play. I met the SCEB club officials and wanted to know their objectives for the season.

“I wanted to know if they wanted to win the league or just form a team and compete. They sounded ambitious and that motivated me. They said they really want to win and will get a solid team in place. They kept their promise and we now have a perfectly balanced team. Knowing that my senior Renedy Singh is also here (as assistant coach) was a big factor. It was a last-minute decision, but I am glad I made the right decision,” Arindam says.

The support from his family was another driving force, he admits. “Since everyone at home supports East Bengal, that motivated me a little bit. I was motivated to play for SCEB even before since my father and grandfather were huge supporters of the club. I spoke to my uncle, who is also a massive supporter, and he said just consider SCEB, they’re a Bengali family (laughs). Now I feel like I am home after signing for SC East Bengal,” he says.

He adds that he’s aware that the club has its share of troubles and has got the clearance to play in the ISL only for this season, but that’s also how far he is thinking. One season at a time, he says. “That didn’t bother me because anyway I wanted to sign for a year. All those issues are back room stuff, my job is to play. I was not planning on signing a long deal anywhere, I wanted to sign for one season and see where I stand after that. That’s the plan.”

The 31-year-old’s foray into goalkeeping was a chance encounter. He used to play football in the monsoons back in Khardah and on one such evening, a senior asked him if he wanted to play for the local team as a ’keeper. The coach there told him he was tall and had the required attributes to be a goalkeeper, sowing the seed for his ambition. In a career that has spanned over 15 years, he has won every title there is to win. He won the I-League at 19 with Churchill Brothers and followed it up with the Federation Cup and IFA Shield titles. He also lifted the Indian Super League title with ATK in the 2019-20 season. He guided ATK Mohun Bagan to the runner-up spot last season and picked up the Golden Glove award.

Continuous learning: Arindam Bhattacharya (left) feels he is learning more now than he did as an upcoming player because of access to better coaches.   -  Focus Sports/ ISL

 

Despite such an illustrious and trophy-laden career, Arindam feels he is learning more now than he did as an upcoming player.

“We have access to better goalkeeping coaches now, which we did not have when I started playing. I am learning more now as a senior player than I did as a young player”.

“It was only when we used to train with the national team that we had access to a good coach in Marcus Pacheco. We used to learn from him and then try to replicate that during our I-League days. Lalit Thapa and I would train together and we used to go to the beach and practice diving and gripping or do the same after our practice sessions on the ground.

“We had no one to push us. We did not know what to train before or after the game. All we knew was we had to push really hard once a week but we didn’t know how to do that through the week during the season, had no clue about that. We used to work hard but didn’t know if we were doing it right. We would watch some training videos of Manuel Neuer or Gianluigi Buffon and try to imitate them. We wanted to train but did not have proper training. We learnt a lot of things very late because of that. One good thing was we wanted to work and we somehow managed to stay fit and see through the seasons. We did a decent job. Technically we were not very sharp because nobody taught us the technical aspect of the game back then, but we managed somehow,” he says with a wry smile.

He also feels that the art of goalkeeping has evolved drastically in India and so has the quality of football. “In the earlier days the goalkeeper would be between the posts and the defence would play a high-line and we did not maintain a backline, But now, it’s completely different — we have to be on our toes, maintain lines and maintain our body shape and shoulders throughout the 90 minutes. We need to ensure that we have one leg ahead and one leg behind and remain in an optimal position. Football has changed a lot and demands a lot of concentration from goalkeepers.”

He casually adds that sometimes he doesn’t get sleep after a game of football. Arindam loves his coffee and his regular pre-match routine is two shots of espresso made by the coffee machine he carries each season. However, that’s not what keeps him up. “I don’t get sleep after games because the concentration level needed in the game is so high! I am not all that physically tired but mentally I’m absolutely exhausted.”

Arindam had 10 clean sheets in the ISL last year. But he maintains that does not mean much. “I may not have conceded a goal but I may have made a lot of wrong decisions or maybe I conceded two goals but have not made wrong decisions. It can go either way. I can give you an example: last year Mumbai City’s Bartholomew Ogbeche scored a goal against me with a one-touch finish off Hugo Boumous’ pass. I watched the replay of that goal at least 30-40 times after the game for the next 5-6 days but I could not see what I could have done better to stop that goal. The only thing I could have done was to ask Pritam (Kotal) to stay a little closer to Ogbeche but he had to cover the other side too. These are small details. Sometimes you concede but don’t know what you could do there. There are those sweet goals that you can’t save. Sometimes, you don’t concede but make a lot of wrong decisions. You get satisfaction only when you make the right decisions. What gives me joy is making the right decisions game after game and being consistent.”

India has a talented line of promising young ‘keepers today, including the likes of Dheeraj Singh and Mohammad Nawaz. Arindam feels this crop is far more talented as they have access to proper technique from their childhood.

“I was not half as talented as they are now. They do a lot of things that I could not do at that age because of the training and exposure they are getting. The things I learnt after finishing half of my career, they have learned as kids preparing for the FIFA U-17 World Cup! I am very happy for them. These young goalkeepers are sharper now and know what to do in terms of positioning, how to deal with the ball and how to be on their feet. They will make a lot of saves look easy because of good technique from childhood.”

When he was a youngster, Arindam looked up to the likes of Sandip Nandy and Subrata Paul. One of his biggest idols in the game was German legend, Oliver Kahn. Seeing Kahn play against Mohun Bagan back in 2011 is a memory Arindam holds close to his heart.

“This was right before the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. I had come back to India because I had injured my shoulder. I went to the stadium one and a half hours before the game just to see Kahn’s warm-ups. The kicking was right and his gripping was so good — he did not lose one ball. After the warm-ups, a coach was kicking a few balls towards him. Kahn caught 10-12 and when it was over he punched the last ball casually and it reached the halfway line. I am not exaggerating! And this was at the Salt Lake stadium and I was like okay, this guy is a beast. I was too starstruck to follow anything else, I was just focussing on him. I will never forget how he punched the ball. That’s all I remember (laughs).”

“We have access to better goalkeeping coaches now, which we did not have when I started playing. I am learning more now as a senior player than I did as a young player”.

There are those sweet goals that you can’t save. Sometimes, you don’t concede but make a lot of wrong decisions. You get satisfaction only when you make the right decisions. What gives me joy is making the right decisions game after game and being consistent.”

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