This English Chopra wants to play for India!

Chopra (right) vibes well with the Kerala Blasters' marquee player, the former England goalkeeper David James.-VIPIN CHANDRAN Chopra (right) vibes well with the Kerala Blasters' marquee player, the former England goalkeeper David James.

Football has brought Michael Chopra to India, the land of his father. He is one of the key men in the Kerala Blasters team at the Indian Super League (ISL), but it is not just to play in the ISL that he has come to India. He is looking forward to stay on even after the ISL and hopes to play for India one day. By P. K. Ajith Kumar.

Like most kids growing up in England with an Asian background, Michael Chopra too tried his hand at cricket. He didn’t find it easy.

“You have to bat against a ball that comes at you at so many miles an hour; it didn’t seem easy to me,” says Chopra in an interview with Sportstar. “But I found batting more exciting than bowling though.”

However, he found football even more exciting and went on to become the first footballer with an Indian parentage to play in the English Premier League. Chopra also played for England in various age categories and set a record for scoring the fastest goal by a substitute in the Premier League ever, as well.

Football has also brought him to India, the land of his father. He is one of the key men in the Kerala Blasters team at the Indian Super League (ISL), but it is not just to play in the ISL that he has come to India. He is looking forward to stay on even after the ISL and hopes to play for India one day.

“To play for India has been a dream,” says the 30-year-old. “Everyone wants to play international football. You want to be able to say that you have played international football against some good teams. And I want to contribute to Indian football; it is one of my concerns now.”

Wouldn’t the Indian football team be better off with someone of his skills and experience?

“People say that,” says Chopra. “And I do want to help Indian football. The only way for me to do that is to give up my British passport and get an Indian one. I am willing to do that; and I have talked to people about that. You have to make such sacrifices if you want to achieve your goal.”

He believes there is hope yet for Indian football. “It’s going to take a long time, but the ISL is the first step, and is the best step one could have taken,” he says. “In the ISL, if you look at the foreign players, including the marquee ones, they are all good. And the grass-roots programme would also follow; and that’s how you start building a team. I am very happy about being the part of the ISL, which should take Indian football forward.”

India had once played in the football semifinals at the Olympics, back in 1956. Does he think India could reclaim at least a part of such a glorious history?

“There are more than one billion people in India, but the football team is ranked 158th,” Chopra points out. “Why did the team fall so back from the 1950’s? You have to think about it. I think the ISL should help India to become what it should be.”

He feels the Indian players would improve after playing along with their foreign counterparts in the ISL. “The Indian players have adapted well,” he says. “There is not that much of a difference between the Indian and the foreign players. The Indian players have just got to up the tempo and pace of the game. They would do that, and we are going to see that in the matches.”

He says teaming up with former England goalkeeper David James, who is a player-manager at Kerala Blasters, has been a nice experience. “I have known him for a long time, and have scored three goals in two games against him in the English Football League Championship,” he smiles. “People talk about him being 44, but when we play matches, he is still very good; he has played in World Cups and in top divisions for many years. He’s passing on all that experience to us. And look at the managers he has worked with, at Manchester City, Liverpool, Aston Villa and of course England. He has worked with men like Fabio Capello. He is passing on all that experience to us at Kerala Blasters.”

Chopra had been coached by Bobby Robson at Newcastle United. “I will never forget the man,” he says. “He is the one who gave me my debut at Newcastle. He is the one that made me who I am. If he hadn’t given my debut, it would have taken much longer to start my career. What he achieved for the game was amazing, as he had also been the manager of Barcelona and England. I was 17 when I joined Newcastle. He would always tell me about the Brazilian Ronaldo and how he had taken him to Barcelona at 18. He used to ask me to copy Ronaldo.”

Chopra has fond memories about playing at Newcastle. “I was playing there with the likes of Alan Shearer, Craig Bellamy, Michael Owen, Gary Speed and Patrick Kluivert; I was a striker and they were the best players to learn from,” he says. “And I did learn a lot.”

He considers it a privilege that he is playing for a team co-owned by Sachin Tendulkar. “When he walked into the room to meet us at Kerala Blasters, you could feel something special,” he says. Everybody in India knows him as a cricketer, but he is much more; he is a sport star.”