Subrata Paul: A Keeper of Faith
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This article was written for and published in August 2020 Issue of Stadium Echo Magazine – a magazine started by Ritwik Khanna. The aim of the magazine is to uplift the coverage that Indian Football receives. Download the issue from here: https://www.stadiumecho.com/the-magazine and read other interesting articles that cover different facets of football in India.
Role models can often become the vehicle for a change. People tend to look outside themselves – towards an icon, an inspiration – which moves them to take up or to transform something. Today, India is spoilt for choice in the goalkeeping department. The brilliant Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who is currently the national team’s number one, is the only Indian to have played in UEFA Europa League. Players like Vishal Kaith, Amrinder Singh, and Lalthuammawia Ralte are more than able deputies for Sandhu.
Perhaps even more exciting are the youth stars, Dheeraj Singh Moiranghtem and Niraj Kumar, who swayed the viewers with their strong performances in the 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup and 2018 AFC U16 Championship respectively. If the Indian Men’s Football team is improving, then the men at the back are leading from the front.
However, the man, who became a telling figure in inspiring and influencing India’s recent upsurge in goalkeeping talent, is none other than Subrata Paul, or as he is endearingly known amongst fans - the Indian Spiderman.
In a recent interview, Sandhu opened up on how a personality like Paul hasn’t only galvanized him but a whole generation of goalkeepers. "Subrata-bhai has been one of my role models when I was starting out. I was lucky to have been able to train with him. I tried to grasp as much as I could from observing him from so close and the experience has helped me become the player I am today," he said.
“He has been a role model for all aspiring keepers in the last decade-and-a-half.”
Naturally, the imprint that Paul made on young footballers wasn’t limited to the goalkeepers. Pritam Kotal, who is an Indian international and recently signed a two-year extension deal with ATK Mohun Bagan FC, gushed about his fanboy moments when Paul played at his home ground.
“We used to come to know one or two days prior when Mistu-da (Subrata Paul) would come to Uttarpara for practice. He was a rockstar then, everyone’s hero. For me, my classes could wait but his training sessions couldn’t,” the defender said on a live chat with AIFF TV.
Spiderman is a superhero, but Peter Parker isn’t. Subrata Paul is the ‘Indian Spiderman’ but he’s also a human. Hardships and obstacles are common to all of humanity, and how could it be any different for Paul. The boy from Sodepur, Kolkata had a troubled youth. Struggling to beat his situation, he often got into fights. Football was his escape from that world.
Joining the Tata Football Academy (TFA) was a watershed moment for him which changed his life. However, it could all have gone very different very easily. Ranjan Chowdhury, Paul’s first coach at the academy, narrated the story of Paul’s admission, “I still remember the day when Subrata first came for trials at TFA, actually they were already over and he spent two nights in front of our main gate. He refused to leave until we gave him a trial. He was the most adamant boy to ever get into TFA. We then gave him a chance; he did well and we inducted him into the academy. Later I realized that TFA was his only chance as there was no alternative in life, no chance to return home.”
While still a teenager, one of the biggest clubs of the country, Mohun Bagan, picked him up. But on December 5 2004, his whole world altered tragically in a flash. He was involved in a rash on-field accident with Dempo FC’s Brazilian striker Cristiano Junior, who as a result of the accident died on the pitch. Paul was slapped with a provisional suspension by the AIFF.
However, it was the mental toll that followed the tragedy which nearly ruined his life. “I went into depression. I did not know what to do. I could not train; I could not go out of my house as people were treating me as guilty. I was suspended for more than three months. But, I started following Swami Vivekananda, read a lot of his books and slowly I recovered,” he said.
“My football and my life have taught me lessons that no university or school can teach you.”
With 67 appearances, Paul is the most capped goalkeeper for India. The glorious service that he has provided over the years to his nation has made him a fabled figure and he is revered in the Indian football circuit. In 2016, he was also acknowledged with the Arjuna Award, the most prestigious sports award in India.
However, the start of his international journey had a fortuitous touch to it. In 2007, he was, almost surprisingly, picked ahead of the experienced Sandip Nandy for the Nehru Cup by Bob Houghton, the then Indian head coach. Paul grabbed that chance with both hands. India went on to win their first-ever Nehru Cup and he was adjudged the best goalkeeper of the tournament.
From there on, Paul and India’s fortunes went hand-in-hand. With him being on his top game and vital for the team’s success, India went on to win multiple tournaments. In 2008, the Blue Tigers won the AFC Challenge Cup, and thereby qualified for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup for the first time in 27 years. This was followed by 2009 and 2012 Nehru Cup triumphs. The iconic image of Paul taking full flight towards his right and saving Hamez Al Aitoni’s fierce penalty in the sudden-death-tie-breaker in the 2009 final is forever engraved in the hearts of Indian football aficionados. In a van der Saar-esque performance, this was the third penalty that he saved in that famous shootout. That year, Paul would go on to win the AIFF Men’s Player of the Year award.
Fascinatingly, that wasn’t the first time that Paul had pulled off triple-penalty-save heroics. Earlier in his career, he achieved the same feat in the U-23 Pre-Olympic qualifiers against Myanmar.
Paul touched his absolute peak in the biggest tournament of his career – the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. While India lost all of their matches, Paul emerged as their saving grace. He made 35 plus saves in three games, including an astonishing 16 against South Korea in a 4-1 defeat. Apart from displaying stunning shot-stopping abilities, his manner of dealing with crosses and quickness of coming off the line was also impressive. It was after this game that the bedazzled Asian media labeled him, ‘the Indian Spiderman’.
After this tournament, his name entered the conversation of Asia’s top goalkeepers. This helped him achieve his dream of playing for a foreign club. While Paul went for a trial stint with Canadian side Vancouver Whitecaps in the summer of 2010 and for a trial-cum-training stint with the German club, RB Leipzig, he finally signed for the Danish Superliga club FC Vestsjaelland in January 2014. By joining FC Vestsjaelland, he became the first Indian goalkeeper to play aboard and the second Indian to join a top-tier European side.
While Paul is no more the country’s first choice, he’s still a massive player for whichever club he features inIn his long and illustrious career, he has donned the colors of a plethora of I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) clubs. In the I-League, he has played for the powerhouses like Mohun Bagan; their archrivals, East Bengal; and Pune FC and has also featured for clubs like Prayag United, Rangdajied United, Salgaocar, and DSK Shivajians.
His journey in the ISL began with Mumbai City FC before NorthEast United snapped him up in 2016. From there, he reunited with Tata and returned to Jamshedpur FC in 2017. As a small present to the company and the city that changed his life, he won that season’s Golden Glove award with seven clean sheets from 18 matches.
After playing 169 games, the 33-year old is showing no signs of slowing down. In the upcoming ISL season, he’ll represent a relatively novel club, Hyderabad FC.
Sipping from the glass of the colossal Gigi Buffon, Paul also perhaps wants to show that age is merely a number. “I have served my country for the last 12 years. I feel I have a lot to give the country. If (Gianluigi) Buffon can play at that age, I can. I have time and I have belief in myself that I can play,” he said.
The man who wore his heart out for the Blue Tigers on the pitch is hopeful for his future and wants to help football in India in whichever way he can.