ISL 2017: Kotal's steep rise to the top

Delhi Dynamos defender, Pritam Kotal, speaks of his journey from humble beginnings and the happy memories he has of the Sree Kanteerava Stadium.

Delhi Dynamos defender Pritam Kotal has happy memories of the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, as it was here two years ago that he won the I-League with Mohun Bagan two years go. He returns now to face Bengaluru FC in an Indian Super League match on Sunday.   -  Shreedutta Chidananda

Pritam Kotal has happy memories of the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. It was here two years ago that Mohun Bagan seized the I-League from Bengaluru FC's grasp, in one of the most dramatic finishes to a season in Indian football.

Bello Rasaq's header three minutes from time handed Bagan its first National league title in 13 years and Kotal his first major trophy as a player. Thousands of fans jammed the streets when the team returned to Kolkata the next day. “The journey from the airport to the club, which normally takes 45 minutes, took us three hours,” he recalls. “It was one of the best days of my life.”

Kotal returns to the same venue to face BFC this Sunday, but not in Bagan colours. Forced to choose between the I-League and the ISL this season, the 24-year-old defender opted for the latter and was snapped up by Delhi Dynamos for 75 lakh at the player draft. It was a difficult decision, he admits.

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“I had a good relationship with Mohun Bagan, but I wanted to play the ISL. We get to go overseas for training and the matches are competitive; we improve technically. Obviously, I feel some sadness. When you play for a club for four years, you develop a bond with the fans. But what could I do? As a professional, I had to make a choice.”

He can understand why fans may be upset with the state of things. “Both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan should be in the ISL. Their fans will be happy; all football fans will be happy.”

Kotal's stock has risen rapidly since he first played for Mohun Bagan four years ago. A quick right-back with excellent crossing abilities, he made his debut for the senior Indian team in 2015 and has since become a fixture in Stephen Constantine's side. He is relishing the prospect of going up against Sunil Chhetri on Sunday. “He's our leader in the Indian team. He guides all of us, and not just on the field. But when we are opponents, koi kisiko chodega nahin (nobody will go easy on anyone else).”

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Kotal, who won the ISL last year with Atletico de Kolkata, has come a long way after a difficult childhood. His father was an auto-rickshaw driver, and life was undeniably hard. "A pair of shoes used to cost 300-400. We could not afford it. That was more than a day's income for my father. Good nutrition was also a problem but my parents made sure I got enough. They fed me even when they were suffering. They never let me find out.”

He has now bought a plot of land in Uttarpara and construction of a new home is under way. “It will be complete by February,” he smiles. “My father does not drive auto rickshaws any longer. I forced him to give it up.”

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