As a pre-teen, Farukh Choudhary once missed out on a chance to play for Mumbai Football Club’s under-15 side. The following day, he was back on the ground at home in Ambernath, chasing the ball and a dream, like some of the children around him, of playing professional football.
Little did he know that eight years on, he would earn his I-League debut (against DSK Shivajians in January) with the senior side of the same club that had once turned him down.
Only 12 years old at the time, Choudhary would make the over 60km journey from Ambernath (in the east of Mumbai) to Borivali four times a week. There were days his father, Haji, would accompany him, else it was a lonely 4-hour commute to get to the trials conducted by Mumbai FC. After three months, he was left out of the final 20.
“They told me that I was doing good, but since I was very young, they encouraged me to return the next year,” Choudhary, 20, recalls.
In Mumbai’s satellite town of Ambernath, there was little infrastructure to groom a player for the big leagues. Choudhary too was initially a distance runner at the Fatima High School. But after an organizer forgot to call him for the inter-house marathon event, he turned to football—this too involved running.
Just two months later, the 11-year-old was picked for the school’s under-12 side. His first coach, Evaristo Cardoz, took him to train with the big boys from the local Diamonds Football Club.
Though he started out as a defender who scored goals, Choudhary was pushed into attacking positions early on.
“Ambernath has a lot of good players. But most are clueless about turning professional, so a lot of talent is lost. I was lucky to be noticed by the right people, right through my career,” says Choudhary.
His association with big-time football in India was quite unplanned, and if it wasn’t for a few chance occurrences, he may well have joined the lot of talented youngsters who are lost to chasing employment.
Regular game time at school and with the club—especially in the many private tournaments held in Ambernath—helped Choudhary polish his skills, and he soon found himself in the Maharashtra squad. During the first edition of the Ambernath Football League, he scored a hat-trick in the final en route to the title, and was recommended to the Central Bank of India squad that played in the highest division of the Mumbai District Football Association’s (MDFA’s) league.
“The only teams I had played for before that were my school side and Diamonds. I had never played in any of the lower divisions (of the MDFA), so it was quite an experience to play directly in the elite division,” he says.
The only time Choudhary went to a professional training set-up was after class XI, when he was picked for the Pune Football Club academy by their scouts at the National School Games. It was a tough call initially but his father—a supervisor at the international airport—stood by him, and Choudhary moved to Pune.
“As long as I continued my education, my father was happy to let me play,” he says.
The stint lasted just a year as Pune FC decided to shut shop. His academy coach, Naushad Moosa, suggested the LoneStar Kashmir Football Club as an option last year. “The Kashmiris love their football, the stadium was packed during our home games (in Srinagar). I used to play as the lone striker, and we had a successful qualifying campaign, making the cut for the final round of I-League 2,” says Choudhary, who scored five times in 15 matches last season.
While most of the players decided to visit home in between the qualifiers and the final round, he decided to stick around in the valley. Since he was registered in the state, he was eligible to turn out for the Jammu and Kashmir side in the Santosh Trophy (held in February last year). It paid off on the first day of training itself—he got an offer to join the Indian Super League’s Kerala Blasters Football Club.
Game time was hard to come by in Kerala—just two in the last season—but learning was key. It continues at the Mumbai FC under new coach Santosh Kashyap, known for his work with young talent.
“I’ve seen some of these guys like Steven Dias and Thoi Singh on television when I first heard of the I-League and was now playing alongside them. I don’t remember talking much on the first day as I was quite dumbstruck. Things are better now,” he says with a smile.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.