Meet Romeo Fernandes, the first Indian footballer to play for a top Brazilian club4 min read . Updated: 06 May 2015, 04:45 PM IST
Fernandes was signed by Goa's Dempo Sports Club in 2010 when he was just 18
Mumbai: Romeo Fernandes has just become the first Indian to play for a top-flight Brazilian club, but it is too early to say if this is a watershed moment for Indian football.
There has been a concentrated effort to popularize football in India in the past decade. The growing popularity of European football leagues here has spurred big European clubs to start training camps in some Indian cities. Meanwhile, attempts have been made to make Indian domestic football more attractive, beginning with the inception of the I-League, now the country’s primary football competition, in 2007. All this culminated in the Indian Super League (ISL), held for the first time last year, which saw local footballers play alongside global stars, albeit mostly retired ones, for celebrity-owned franchises.
The question long-time Indian football fans have had is whether all these would lead to actual progress for Indian footballers. In the past month, two have made their professional debuts for top-flight foreign clubs. In late April, former East Bengal goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu started for Norwegian club Stabaek Football, becoming the first Indian to play a professional match for the senior side of a top-division European club. And three days ago, 22-year-old right-sided winger Romeo Fernandes debuted for Brazilian side Clube Atlético Paranaense.
Fernandes’ opportunity at Atletico is an exciting one. The club has won the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, Brazil’s marquee football league, twice, and is among the biggest clubs in Brazil. It offered Fernandes a contract on the advice of Zico, the Brazilian footballing great who coached FC Goa in the ISL. Zico was impressed by Fernandes’ pace and dribbling skills in the ISL, in which he scored three goals and had two assists in 11 games.
It has been a tale of triumph against the odds for Fernandes, who was born into a poor family in the riverside village of Assolna, in Goa. His took up a job as a cook to support her four children, and his elder brother worked in a hotel to help pay Fernandes’ school fees. Fernandes attended Regina Martyrum High School and did not do well. He was happier playing football with his classmates on the small school ground.
After impressing in inter-village football and in inter-state competitions, Fernandes was signed by Goa’s Dempo Sports Club in 2010, when he was just 18. He played for Dempo’s youth team, was loaned to second-division club Margao Sports Club where he did well, before breaking into the Dempo senior side. By then, he had also made four starts and scored two goals for the India Under-23 team. But it was the ISL that brought Fernandes into the limelight and got Atletico Paranaense interested in him.
While Fernandes and Sandhu could become success stories that can inspire young aspiring Indian footballers, it would be imprudent to get overenthusiastic. The few Indian footballers who tried their hand in overseas clubs do not have much to show for their efforts. Fernandes’ fellow Goan Brandon Fernandes spent a considerable amount of time in Europe, on trial with several clubs and also attended a football academy in South Africa. However, he has now returned to India to play for Sporting Club de Goa. Former India captains Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chettri have both had stints at lower-division European clubs but didn’t get the opportunities they wanted. Goalkeeper Subrata Pal never managed to get a professional start for Danish side FC Vestsjælland, while defender Anupam Sarkar has played just three matches since moving to Georgian second-tier club FC Adeli.
While Sandhu and Fernandes have both turned out for top-tier clubs, it should be noted that they did not exactly participate in the biggest competitions. Sandhu played in the Norweigan Cup, not the Tippeligaen, the elite league. Fernandes played in the Campeonato Paranaense, a state competition, not the prestigious Campeonato Brasileiro Série A—in Brazil, top clubs play in both national and state leagues in what is a complex football league system.
Atletico, reportedly, was looking specifically for an Indian player to join their ranks and settled on Fernandes after Zico’s recommendation. This suggests the club may be looking at Fernandes as a way to build popularity in India. Foreign clubs see Asia as a big market and often buy Asian players more for marketing purposes than footballing ones. Manchester United once bought Chinese striker Dong Fangzhuo, but he only ever made one start for the senior side and is now back in China. Arsenal’s purchase of Japanese teenager Ryo Miyaichi was also seen as a marketing ploy.
Fernandes is quite raw and got his chance based mainly on the ISL, which could set a dangerous precedent. While he has impressed in youth sides, he has only scored one goal for the Dempo senior side and has not yet played for the Indian senior team.
These qualms notwithstanding, Fernandes and Sandhu’s achievements are certainly a sign that Indian football is moving in the right direction. There is hope that the growing popularity of the I-League, the inception of ISL and more Indians playing in foreign leagues will add up to a much-needed improvement in quality of the domestic game.