Pune’s defender from Tiruchi

Dharmaraj Ravanan, the Tamil Nadu stopper, is a firm fixture in the ISL team, FC Pune City. The player tells K. Keerthivasan as to how he moulded himself into an all-round defender.

Dharmaraj Ravanan has come a long way since playing for Indian Bank in the Chennai Football Association senior division league nearly nine years ago. Having played for top clubs in the I-League such as Dempo, Mahindra United, Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers has made Ravanan one of the finest Indian defenders, who can excel in any position in the back-line. In the Hero Indian Super League, too, the stopper has earned a good reputation.

The Pune franchise (FC Pune City) signed the 27-year-old, a native of Sembarai (Tiruchi) village, in the first draft knowing for sure that he would be an asset. Ravanan hasn’t disappointed the team and has gone on to play in all the first nine matches for Pune (last match against Chennaiyin FC in Chennai at the time of writing).

In this interview, Ravanan speaks about how ISL has changed his outlook and how I-League will continue to be relevant, among other things.

Excerpts:

Question: Your experience of playing in the ISL so far?

Answer: It’s been very good so far. It’s something new for me, even though I have played professional football for the last eight years in the I-League for Churchill Brothers, Mahindra United, Mohun Bagan and Dempo. ISL is a different experience, definitely. Because I have learnt a lot (I’ve learnt from I-League too).

Football is always a learning experience. Only that ISL is a notch above I-League as far as the standard of players is concerned. You can learn a lot just by watching (foreign) players play. Not that they have to teach you. By seeing them play from close, you lose the fear factor. Earlier, if we were facing a better team than us, we were diffident. Now, that you mix with them, it becomes easy. You feel all are equal.

Which position do you prefer?

I have played as centre back, right back and left back. I have played in all three positions. Originally my position was central defence. In the National team and the I-league, I have played in that position. But here, there are foreigners as central defenders (Bruno Cirillo & Daniele Magliocchetti). Now I play left-back. I don’t know in which position I will play in the next match, it depends on the coach.

What have you learnt from the foreign coaches and players in the ISL… aspects you have not learnt from the I-League?

I think the basics are the same, but the coaching styles differ. I have worked with a lot of foreign coaches, Colin Toal, David Booth, their styles are different. FC Pune City has an Italian defence coach Giovanni Mei, who is also the assistant coach. In ISL, they have simplified things for me. They say ‘in that position, this is how you have to play.’ In the last two months, I have tasted the benefits of the lessons I’ve learnt. From practice to matches, I have been able to implement a lot of things successfully.

After the 2010 Asian Games, you have not found a place in the Indian team.

The year 2010 was the last time I played for India and it happened to be the Asian Games in Guangzhou (China). In 2010 I expected to be in the Indian senior team. After the Asian Games nearly 15 players from my batch were called for the National camp. My name was missing. I was not crestfallen.

When I started, my aim was not to play for India. I wanted to play football. I don’t play to represent India. As long as I play football, I am happy. Indian team or club, it doesn’t matter.

You have played in all of FC Pune City’s first nine matches in the ISL. Your feelings?

You know the level of competition in the ISL. Of the five Indians, to be in the first XI is not very easy. I am happy that I have played in all the matches so far. I am very proud.

How will you differentiate between the ISL and the I-League?

The difference between I-league and ISL is simple. In both we learn football. There is no change in that. I-League is spending a lot. So does Pune City. But the amount spent in ISL is higher. Here, people involved in ISL are well established, the amount is higher, so facilities on and off field are very good. The lessons learnt are the same. Only the way of expression is different. I have to deliver what the coach says.

Subhash Bhowmick has played a huge role in your career. Under him, Churchill Brothers won the Federation Cup (2014) and the I-league (’13). How was that experience?

I worked under him for 2-1/2 years. We share a good relationship. He is a players’ coach because he is always supportive of the players.

How was the 10-day coaching stint in Fiorentina (Italy) before the start of the ISL?

It was a different experience against the Fiorentina youth team. The facilities were good; the ground, equipment were top class. That’s what a player wants.

You have represented Tamil Nadu in the Santosh Trophy even though you were playing in the I-League.

Yes, whenever I was called I have not said ‘No.’ I have played for Tamil Nadu for seven years. I was part of the 2009 Santosh Trophy team when the championship was held in Chennai and the next year too in Kolkata.

Do you have any early memories of playing in Chennai?

When I was studying in Std. IX, I represented Tiruchi District in the ‘Catch Them Young’ football tournament. The first time I came we won the tournament. The Chennai league experience has been good. Moreover, I have lot of friends in Chennai.

Did you expect such a huge turn-out in Chennai for the ISL?

I am really happy that so many people are coming to watch the ISL. People asked me whether crowds would come for the ISL matches in Chennai. I told them of the heyday of the Chennai league when teams like Customs, Railways, Indian Bank and ICF took part and the crowd used to come in droves and watch the teams play. How the crowd was in Chennai, only we know. I have also heard a lot from others as to how a lot of people used to come to watch matches. More than 10 department teams provided jobs for deserving footballers regularly. Now things are different. Jobs have shrunk. There were times when I have applied for leave to watch the Chennai league matches. It was a top league then.

Was it a tough decision to resign from a bank job in Chennai?

Football has been my passion. Once I got an offer from Dempo, I didn’t have any second thoughts. My parents said it’s my wish. When I decided to take up football, I wanted to explore the maximum.

What will be the future of the I-League?

The I-League is important. In the next six months, I will have to play in the I-League. Otherwise, people will ask where I was when they pick the team for the next ISL season. Only after seeing me play did FC Pune City take me in the first draft. Only because of the I-League I am here.