Uncle Tony, man who introduced Indians to European Leagues and the outside world

The 82-year old Tony Fernandes, based in France, is someone whom several Indians, from Dhanraj Pillay to Jude Felix, Ferreira, Shakeel Ahmed and Harendra consider having a lasting influence on them, both on and off the field.

Tony Fernandes watches the World Cup hockey games from the spectators gallery at the Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

 

Unhone mujhe insaan banaya (he made me the man I am today). He is my life guide and mentor.” — Harendra Singh, Indian chief coach.

“He taught me the things that helped me become the player I eventually did on field, including the importance of discipline in game and in life.” — Dhanraj Pillay, one of the biggest legends of Indian hockey.

“He helped me see the game from a completely different perspective, understand how to read the game from a different angle.” — Gavin Ferreira, Olympian and one of the keenest minds in Indian hockey.

Three people, achievers all, with three completely different lessons learnt that have come to mark their careers and personalities – from the same teacher.

The 82-year old Tony Fernandes may be unknown to most, but the Indian — settled in France for half a century — is someone whom several Indians, from Pillay to Jude Felix, Ferreira, Shakeel Ahmed and Harendra consider having a lasting influence on them, both on and off the field.

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All of them plied their craft for FC Lyon in the French League in the 1990s, among the earliest to travel to Europe professionally in their quest for both financial benefits and sporting knowledge. All of them credit Fernandes for helping them as much off the field as on it, opening their minds to a new culture and fine-tuning their game to succeed on the highest stage.

“A very polished coach, he (Tony Fernandes) taught me things like ball possession, how to add sudden burst from the 25-yard line to the circle with the ball (his trademark), and how to not waste the ball inside the D – either score or get a penalty corner (which he was an expert at in his later years.” — Dhanraj Pillay

“He is one of the two coaches I have learnt the most from – the other being Ric Charlesworth, for the tactics and the style of play,” Harendra said, adding that Fernandes was also the one who first spotted the coach in him by giving him charge of the club’s sub-junior side while still playing.

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Having moved to play for FC Lyon back in 1968, Fernandes can be credited for beginning the trend of Indian players competing in European leagues. He also travelled with the Indian team on one tour – Sri Lanka, or Ceylon back then, in 1967 in a side that included Ajitpal Singh, Mohinder Lal and captained by Gurbux Singh.

“I was constantly in the Indian camps, including the one for the 1968 Olympics, but could not make the cut. But no regrets, there were 6-7 equally talented players for every position back then and anyone who was selected deserved to be in there. My contemporaries include Udham Singh, Balbir Singh, Govind Perumal – all legends. So I took the offer to play in France,” Fernandes said here.

Felix, the current junior India coach, was the first to make the move after an offer during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. “It was a decent offer financially and otherwise, he agreed and, once he landed, suggested Dhanraj since we could have two foreign players at the club. That’s how Dhanraj came to France and it all took off from there,” Fernandes said.

The relationship that started in 1992 continued through the decade, with the longest being with Pillay and Harendra. “I played there for five years, from 1993-98, and he rectified the small issues in my game. A very polished coach, he taught me things like ball possession, how to add sudden burst from the 25-yard line to the circle with the ball (his trademark), and how to not waste the ball inside the D – either score or get a penalty corner (which he was an expert at in his later years),” Pillay said. Skills that, coupled with his innate talent, would go on to make him one of the fittest, fastest legends of the game.

But more than on field, it was the personal development that the players swear by. “It was not all about hockey. How to deal with people, manage your behaviour, maintain protocols – these things are equally important and many of it I learnt in France,” Dhanraj admitted.

“My family has taken French citizenship, my son played for France. But every time I pick up the form for citizenship, I am unable to do it. I am an Indian, I will remain one, I just cannot be anything else.” — Tony Fernandes

And Harendra, who has always insisted on a player’s social skills as much as his game, added that “knowing a country is like opening your minds to a new world. He did that for us.”

Fernandes isn’t too keen to take credit. “They can tell better if they gained anything. Since we used to only play on weekends, the boys had the entire week free and I used to prepare individual programmes for them. I could polish them or add finer points to their game, tell them they had to bring the intensity of a match to training also. But I also talked to them about respecting people, learning about new cultures, carrying themselves in public – not that they did not earlier but handling situations delicately was a new experience,” he said.

Ferreira admitted the experience was an eye-opener. “On field it helped me see the game from a different perspective, understand how they read the game. Off it, Fernandes’ presence was a great help socially, in terms of learning new things and developing the overall personality. He was a great support for all the Indians who went there, training individually while also helping us adjust to the changes,” Ferreira said.

His favourites, though, remain Pillay and Harendra. “Dhanraj has quite a temperament and that’s what I tried to control. That didn’t stop him from becoming a great player because of his talents. Harendra was also like that earlier but is now more controlled and has understood things. He is sober and takes decisions carefully; Pillay has always been a lone wolf. Also, he is so talented it is not easy to understand that not everyone can do what comes easily to him,” he said.

The current team, he believes, his clearly among the best in the world, both in terms of skills and mental strength and deserving of its 5th rank. He loves Indian hockey and, despite half a century in France, Fernandes remains an Indian. “My family has taken French citizenship, my son played for France. But every time I pick up the form for citizenship, I am unable to do it. I am an Indian, I will remain one, I just cannot be anything else,” he smiled.