Mary and Lawrence Fernandes were a young couple living in a small town called Mapusa in Goa. Lawrence worked as a clerk in a bank and Mary was an English teacher at Antonio D’silva High School. They worked hard for meagre salaries. They weren’t able to save much after their regular expenses and EMIs. That said, they were happy and content, the materialistic world did not seem to bother them. Things were about to change though.
“Honey?” Said Mary one morning. “I think I may be pregnant.”
Lawrence was quiet, not knowing how to react.
“Lawrence? Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m okay.”
“Then say something!” She demanded.
“That is exciting news,” he replied in a flat tone.
“Really? You don’t sound excited.”
Lawrence sighed. “Mary, we aren’t ready for this. We barely save anything from our salaries. If we are to have this child, we have to work harder than before. I’ll have to look for a better paying job.”
“And I will start home tuitions. I think I’ll make a good amount,” added Mary.
“Now that looks like a plan!”
So, Lawrence took up a part time job at a private office. After his regular hours at the bank, he worked three hours at the private office. Mary started tutoring at home. The couple worked hard and managed to save a decent amount of money. In the nine months, while most women have food cravings, Mary developed a sudden and inexplicable love for football. One night they were watching football and Mary was super animated in her reaction to the goals, the fouls and the misses.
“I can’t believe this,” said Lawrence.
“What?” Asked Mary.
“I can’t believe this is the same person, who till a few months ago, used to ask me why do you have to spend every weekend watching football!”
“Well, times change. And who knows, maybe it’s our little one who loves football,” she said, placing her right palm on her abdomen. “May be the kid’s going to be a football star.”
“What if it’s a girl?” Asked Lawrence.
“So?” Mary asked firmly. The smile on Lawrence’s face vanished. “Don’t girls have the right to follow their heart?”
“I did not mean that,” Lawrence tried to defend himself. “It’s just that, in our country, women’s football is not yet established.”
“She can probably move abroad, if that’s where her dreams take her.”
“Yes! She surely can. I’m sorry, honey.”
“That’s okay,” she replied. “Come here, sit close to me.”
Lawrence moved next to her and held her in a warm embrace.
Nine months zoomed by and Mary delivered a baby boy who they named Antonio. Boasting a beautiful brown complexion and curly black hair, Antonio was an adorable child. Growing up, he was intelligent and athletic and the cynosure of all eyes. His parents were both happy and proud. Right from when he was a toddler, Lawrence noticed Antonio’s affinity for football. Even when he could barely walk, he loved kicking the football. Five years went by, seemingly in the blink of an eye.
“Antonio will be five next month,” said Mary looking at Antonio, playing with his football.
“Yeah, he’s growing up too fast!” Said Lawrence. “Let’s buy him a gift and spend the weekend at some resort. What do you say?”
Mary smiled. “I like that plan.”
On his 5th birthday, they took Antonio to the biggest toy shop in town.
“Antonio, it’s your birthday my love,” said Mary. “Choose a gift of your choice.”
“Really!? I can take what I want?” Asked an elated Antonio.
“Yes, you can.” Replied Lawrence. “Let’s leave him inside the store. We will wait outside.”
“Sure,” said Mary and they walked out.
A few minutes later Lawrence peeped into the store to check on his son.
“There he goes again!” He exclaimed.
“What happened?” Asked Mary.
“Look,” he said, holding the door open. “Your son.”
Mary looked inside and started laughing. Antonio was juggling a football with his feet. Mary laughed out aloud.
“Not my son alone! Our son!”
“Now I know why you watched so much football during pregnancy. He made you watch it!”
They were laughing when someone from inside the store opened the door.
“Is he your son?” Asked an old man.
“Yes, sir, why?” Asked Lawrence.
“Hi,” said the old man, putting his right hand forward. “My name is James. I am the head coach at the Panaji Football Club, Goa.”
Lawrence shook his hand. “Hi James, how can I help you?”
“Come on both of you, let’s sit and talk.”
Once they were seated inside the store, James asked, “So, where is your son training at the moment?”
“Training?” Asked Lawrence.
“Football coaching,” clarified James.
“No sir, he’s not going for any training.”
“What?” James was astonished. “My God!”
“Is everything okay?” Asked Mary.
“Is everything okay?” Repeated James. “Do you not see that madam? Your son is a prodigy. I have never seen such a young kid juggle a football so well. And without training, gosh! It’s a gift, your son has a gift!”
Mary and Lawrence had a sparkle in their eyes. They were proud. They knew their son was gifted, they only needed someone else to tell them that.
“What’s his name?” Asked James.
“Antonio Fernandes.” Replied Mary.
“And it’s his fifth birthday today!” Added Lawrence.
“That’s amazing,” said James. “That football is my gift to your son. Take my card, bring him to the club on Saturday morning at 10. Don’t be late.”
James left after paying for the football. Mary had tears in her eyes, Lawrence hugged her. Antonio thought something was amiss so walked up to his parents with the football in his hands. “Is everything okay?”
“Couldn’t be better!” Exclaimed Lawrence. “Come, let’s go for lunch.”
Mary, Lawrence and Antonio reached the football club at 9.45 am on Saturday morning. James was in a training session and asked them to wait. Mary and Lawrence sat down on a bench but Antonio wasn’t able to curtain his excitement. He was rearing to run onto the pitch and play. James came to the side and escorted them to his office a little while later.
“I’m glad you came,” said James. “Juggling a football is one thing, playing football is another. But from what I see, Antonio is super enthusiastic about the game. So, I think you should enrol his name for coaching right away.”
“Yes, sir. That is why we are here,” replied Lawrence.
James went on to explain the coaching plan and the fee structure. When they heard the coaching fees, their excitement turned to disappointment.
“We are sorry, sir,” said Lawrence. “We are middle class people. We cannot afford to spend so much on football coaching.”
Antonio was heartbroken. “But dad, I really want to play football. This is what I want to do!”
This was the first time Antonio had spoken. Such clarity of thoughts from a child so young could not be a coincidence.
“Mr. Fernandes, don’t think of this coaching as an expense, think of it as an investment,” explained James.
“I don’t think we can afford it,” said Lawrence sternly.
Antonio broke down. Mary hugged her son and tried to explain their predicament to him. Lawrence got up, respectfully said thank you to the coach and turned around to walk out.
“Wait!” Said James and all three of them turned around. “I would not be doing justice to my role as a football coach if I let this talent slip into oblivion. Here’s what I propose. Why don’t you pay half the fees and I’ll bear the other half. Is that okay?”
Lawrence normally never expressed himself but, in that moment, even he wasn’t able to hold back his tears. He rushed to the coach, took his hand and kissed it. “How can we ever thank you?”
“By sending him for coaching regularly and on time,” said James with a smile on his face.
“We are indebted to you for life,” added Mary.
“It is my duty madam,” said James. “Antonio, I’ll see you on the pitch at 7 tomorrow morning, yeah?”
“Aye Aye captain,” replied young Antonio enthusiastically.
So began a new journey for Antonio. While the adults hoped he would play professional football someday, all little Antonio wanted was to enjoy doing what he loved most. Antonio started coaching with children of his age but very early on it was evident that he was in a league of his own. Whether dribbling, passing or shooting, Antonio was good at everything. James decided to move Antonio to another group where he would play with children elder to him. James hoped he would face some competition there.
“Antonio?” Said James during a training session.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“I will be changing your group. But before I do that, we need to establish your position. What do you prefer?”
“I prefer playing football, sir.”
James laughed. “I know that, but which position do you prefer?”
“I would love to run up and down the field, sir.”
“Well, in that case, you will be my attacking midfielder.”
“Wow! Sounds good. What will be my role?”
“You have to hold the hall in the midfield, create chances for the strikers and move forward to be a striker if the need arises,” explained James.
“Thank you, I love the role of attacking midfielder.”
So Antonio was moved to play with kids up to 10 years old. Even there Antonio was able to hold himself up against the bigger children. His magical, free flowing style of football caught the attention of many. He was truly gifted. His passes were accurate, his striking clinical and his tackling flawless.
Antonio was selected in the Panaji Football Club’s (PFC) junior team. He played brilliantly in the tournament and was on the radar of every local football club. They were set to play the final against Mapusa Rangers. The match kicked off and was a stalemate till 60 minutes. Then something happened that was to change the course of Antonio’s life. PFC won a free kick 30 yards out. Antonio stepped up to take it. It was a little too far out, especially for someone his age. He placed the ball on the mark and walked back 10 steps. He looked up at the goal and assessed the position. He looked down, took a few deep breaths, ran in and took the spot kick. To every viewer, it seemed he had missed his mark by a long way. But it swung in prodigiously, as if against the laws of physics, and went into the top right corner of the goal. There was a frenzied celebration by PFC players. The coaching staff of both teams and the spectators watched and applauded in amazement. Antonio’s goal was the only one in the match and it won PFC the junior’s title. Antonio played for PFC till he was 10 years old. Getting better with each season, his time at the club was coming to an end. James was busy in his office one morning when he heard someone knock. “Come in.”
In walked a tall, dark man wearing golden framed glasses. “Myself Sunder Das, head scout Mohun Bagan Football Club.”
James stood up immediately. “Welcome sir, please have a seat.”
“What brings you here?” Enquired James.
“There’s this boy who plays at your club, he’s caught my attention. I have been following his game and he keeps getting better. Credit to you Mr. James, you spotted the talent and groomed him well. But now his time here is up. He is meant to play with the big boys. I’m here to sign him to play for Bagan.”
“But sir, isn’t he too young to be moving?” James expresses his concern.
“But if he stays here, he will become stagnant. Can you please arrange a meeting with Antonio’s parents?”
“Sure, I will ask them to come tomorrow morning at 10?”
“Thank you James, see you tomorrow.”
The next morning, James called Lawrence and Mary to his office at 9.30, while Antonio was out training. He informed them about the purpose of the meeting.
“Good morning, everyone,” Das greeted as he walked in at 10 am sharp.
“Good morning, sir,” greeted James. “This is Mary Fernandes and he is Lawrence Fernandes, Antonio’s parents.”
“Oh, it is such a pleasure to see you both. Please, have a seat. Shall we order some coffee?”
“Sure, I’ll do that,” said James.
“So, Mary and Lawrence, how are we doing?” Asked Das.
“We are doing fine, thank you,” replied Lawrence.
“James, have you briefed them about the purpose of this meeting?” Asked Das.
“Yes sir, we were talking about the same before you came.
“So, what are your thoughts on the same?” Das asked Mary and Lawrence.
“Kolkata is far from here, that’s what I think,” said Mary.
“You son is going to go farther! This is just the first step Mrs. Fernandes. I see him playing for Mohun Bagan, I see him playing for India and I see him playing club football in Europe some day!”
“Europe?” Enquired Mary.
“Yes, Europe! English League or Spanish League or Italian League! Ask James about it, he will tell you!”
“James?” Mary was puzzled.
“Oh! James, you haven’t mentioned? James was the first Indian player to play English club football.”
“Oh really! He never mentioned that,” said Mary.
James looked uncomfortable. “Excuse me, I’ll go and check why our coffee hasn’t yet come. You guys please carry on the discussion.” He walked out of his office.
“What happened to him?” Asked Lawrence.
Das hesitated. “Nostalgia, maybe.”
They went on to discuss the prospects of Antonio playing for Mohun Bagan. James returned a few minutes later. Das put his proposal forward. They were ready to pay Antonio and his parents a handsome sum and an equally handsome amount to PFC to part with their best player. Mary and Lawrence agreed upon one condition, that they would be given tickets to Kolkata every two months. So that they could meet their son and keep in touch. Mr. Das accepted their terms.
“I’m glad we have an agreement,” said Das and shook hands with all three of them. “I shall get the documents ready by tonight. Shall we sign the documents on Monday morning?”
“That should be fine,” said James. “Lawrence?”
“Yes, fine for us too.”
So, the documents were made, signed and notarised.
“Welcome to Mohun Bagan Football Club, Antonio,” said Das to the boy once the formalities were done.
“Thank you,” replied Antonio with a smile.
“By the way, I forgot to mention, Antonio has already set a new record for Mohun Bagan,” said Das.
“What’s that?” Enquired Lawrence.
“He is the youngest player ever signed by Bagan! All the best to all of us,” he replied and walked away.
Antonio played the remainder of that season for PFC and completed the academic year in Goa. Mary packed up his stuff and Lawrence checked the travel arrangements. They request James to come along to drop Antonio to Kolkata. They reached Kolkata and reported to Mr. Das as per schedule.
“Welcome, welcome to Kolkata and to Mohun Bagan!” Greeted Das. “I hope your journey was a pleasant one.”
“Yes, thank you,” said Lawrence.
“Good to see you James,” said Das. “Now, as per protocol, there will be a medical examination of Antonio following which he will be a part of this prestigious club. Don’t worry, it’s just formality.”
Once the examination was done, Das handed a cheque to Lawrence and one to James as per the amount agreed upon.
“Please stay back for a couple of days. We will be presenting him with his Bagan jersey,” said Das.
A couple of days later, Antonio’s signing was made public in the presence of the media and fans. A lot of questions were asked and haters started to surface. Doubts were expressed about Antonio’s talent and some questioned the exorbitant amount paid to hire his services. Antonio was taken aback. Up until that time, he had only come across admirers and supporters. His first brush with doubters left him a little flustered. James noticed this and thought of having a word with him later in the day.
“Congratulations, Antonio,” said James. “You’re a professional now.”
“Thank you, sir. This wouldn’t have been possible without you.”
“You’re welcome. But I just showed you the path, it was you who walked on it. I want you to know, Antonio, that at any stage of life, you need me, remember I’m just a phone call away.”
“That means a lot to me, sir,” said Antonio.
“At the press meet today, I noticed your reactions to the doubters.”
“Oh, was it that evident? It comes as a surprise to me. I’ve been doing so well; how can they doubt my calibre?”
“Let me tell you a few things about this world. For starters, not everyone will be happy with your success. There will be people who will pull you down out of jealousy. You got to learn to ignore them. Don’t waste time trying to prove them wrong. Just keep doing what you do best. Then, whatever you do, wherever you go, make sure arrogance is never your companion. You must remain humble at all times. You may be the top scorer in one season and might struggle to find the net in the next. It’s a part of the game. Be humble, remember form is temporary but class is permanent. Finally, be your own supporter. There will be times when you find yourself alone. In such times you will have to dig deep within yourself to find strength. As a professional football player, this moment invariably comes on the field,” explained James.
“Thank you for the valuable lessons, sir.”
Antonio took to Bagan like a duck to water. He was prolific and sublime and silenced his haters by his performance on pitch. In the three seasons that he played for Bagan under 13, he won player of the season twice. He continued to work hard without getting complacent. Finally, the day arrived when his hard work would pay off. Mohun Bagan had sold their prolific senior midfielder and were looking for a replacement. When they couldn’t find a suitable buy, they decided to look within. Unanimously, they decided to give Antonio a crack at it.
“Welcome ladies and gentlemen,” announced the sporting director of Mohun Bagan. “Before we announce the squad for the upcoming season, we will like to introduce our new number 9.”
The crowd was taken aback. The media had not heard any news of a new signing by Mohun Bagan. There were murmurs in the room and the director waited for silence before he could continue.
“Quiet please,” he said. “We decided to look within, for an attacking midfielder and we found gold in our very own academy. Without taking any more time, let me introduce to you our new number 9, Antonio Fernandes!”
Antonio emerged from backstage and walked up to a round of thunderous applause. The director presented him with the jersey, ‘Antonio 9’, it read.
“Antonio has broken an old record of this club. At 15 years and 285 days, he is the youngest player ever to be included in the team. When he plays the first match on the opening day, he will also become the youngest player ever to play for the club!” Announced the director.
The opening game of the season was against Kerala Rangers. Antonio was on the bench. Mohun Bagan dominated most of the game but against the run of play, Kerala scored the opening goal in the 70th minute. A 75th minute substitution meant Antonio got his first outing, albeit for just 15 minutes, at senior level football. He immediately worked his magic. Though he did not score a goal, his accurate passing meant he finished the game with two assists and a victory for Mohun Bagan. He was an instant hit with the fans. This was a fairytale start to a fairytale season. He went on to finish that season with maximum assists and 21 goals, the most by a midfielder that season. The player of the season award was another feather in his cap. The season after that was equally incredible and now the national level selectors noticed him too. At 18 years old, he became the youngest footballer to represent India. Though India failed to qualify for the world cup, Antonio’s performances in the qualifiers were hailed by the world football community.
Before the start of the next season, an Englishman appeared at Mohun Bagan’s stadium. He went straight to the director’s office.
“Hello, my name is Richard Johnson. I’m the head scout for Blackburn Rangers Football Club, we are a first division English football club,” the Englishman introduced.
“Welcome, Richard. What brings you here?” Asked the director.
“We would like to make an offer for one of your players.”
“I think I know who it is you want, but he’s not for sale. He is going to be named captain this season.”
“He is too good for the Indian league. No Indian player has played in England since James. Don’t you want to make your country proud? Besides, have a look at what we are offering,” said Richard and pushed some papers across the table. The director picked up the papers and was shocked to see the offer. Such a huge sum of money was unheard of in Indian football. A smile appeared on Richard’s face.
“Do we have your permission to discuss this with Antonio?” Asked Richard.
“Sure, I’ll call his agent and fix a meeting soon.”
“Thank you, sir. I will be waiting to hear from you.”
The meeting was scheduled for the next morning. Richard and the director were already waiting when Antonio and his agent walked in. They heard the proposal and after some intense negotiations, the terms of transfer and player fees were finalised. Antonio was surprised at the amount of money he would be receiving to play in England. He could finally give his parents a high society lifestyle. Richard had the documents which were signed and the signing bonus cheque was handed over to Antonio.
“Welcome to Blackburn Rangers, Antonio,” said Richard. “We look forward to a long-standing relationship. Hope you will take us to the premier league once again.”
“Thank you, I will try my best,” replied Antonio.
Antonio was on cloud nine! Since the day James noticed him at the store, his life was only getting better. At the age of 21 he was named captain of the Indian national team and he was set to become only the second Indian player to play in England.
Antonio arrived in England without much fanfare. While he commanded respect from the football community, he arrived in England at a time when racism in football was at its peak. Upon his arrival, he underwent medical checks as per protocol. He was given the same number 9 number jersey here too. His career at Blackburn started impressively. He was quick and sharp and had an immediate impact on the team’s overall performance. He had a very good season, scoring 12 goals and creating another 15. The British media was not impressed though. They felt Blackburn had unnecessarily splurged on an Indian when they should be nurturing domestic players. Blackburn ignored the media and Antonio was advised to do the same. But when he saw these pieces in the papers or watched them on television, he was surprised. He had the same feeling he had, as a boy, when he joined Bagan. He failed to understand why some people tried to bring another down. He was probably too naive for the world. Blackburn arranged for counselling sessions for Antonio as an insurance for their investment. Antonio managed to ignore the comments and continued to play, getting better and better with each game, better and better with each season. His third season with Blackburn was the high point of his career in England. He scored 21 goals and had 25 assists. Blackburn were promoted to the premier league and Antonio was named player of the season. In the same year he helped India to qualify for its first ever football world cup. He could do no wrong it seemed. His career was set to hit yet another high. Manchester United, the traditional powerhouse of English football, made an offer for the 24-year-old Antonio. An offer so big, neither Blackburn nor Antonio could turn it down. Antonio signed a 4-year contract with Manchester and became the first player to play in the English Premier League. The rise of Antonio wasn’t making everyone happy though.
Though Antonio had played football most of his life, this was something he had never experienced. Most of his football he played in a country where cricket is the most popular sport. Then he moved to a lesser league where the attention of the media was mediocre. Now, getting a chance to play in the best league in the world, came with its share of pressure. Everywhere in Manchester he saw huge posters of himself, welcoming him to Manchester. The media was divided in opinion, a large part thought Manchester had overspent on an Indian. Some doubted his calibre, others questioned his creed. Not being able to find a footing in the warmup games did not help Antonio’s cause. The racist section of the community decided they wouldn’t let this ‘brown man’ settle in England. Antonio was on the bench for the first game and did not get a chance to play. As he was making his way from the pitch after the match, a group of opposition fans approached him.
“Hey, Antonio,” said their leader. “You don’t belong here!”
The rest of his group started chanting together, “You don’t belong here!”
Antonio was whisked off by his team mates but the incident left a scar on the already under pressure player. Opposition fans made full use of this incident. In every match since, they made sure Antonio heard the slogan, ‘You don’t belong here’, loud and clear. They were like a pack of hyenas looking for fresh blood. For Antonio, who was unable to find a footing in top flight football, this made matters worse. His form dipped and he was dropped from the starting lineup. He got a few substitute performances where he failed to impress. After one poor outing, an English teammate of his commented in his ear, “This isn’t cricket, is it? His confidence hit rock bottom then and the racist slurs scarred him. Manchester was concerned about its investment too. So, they hired the best counsellor in the country and asked Antonio to practice for a couple of months and not think about playing in the team.
One day, Antonio was watching a debate on a news channel about him called, ‘An opportunity missed or money squandered? While he was watching, he received a call from James.
“Hi, sir, good to hear from you!”
“Likewise, Antonio. I know what’s happening, you got to pull yourself together again. This opportunity won’t come again. If they let you go, it’s over.”
Antonio broke down, “I don’t want to play in England, sir. I want to come back.”
“Listen, Antonio. No one said it’s going to be easy. You’re the first Indian to make it, you can’t give up now. This isn’t my Antonio.”
“I have tried and failed. The club hasn’t given up on me though, they have hired the best counsellor. A few sessions and they think I’ll be okay.”
“Maybe I’m cynical, but I don’t think any of that stuff really works for anyone who is truly broken. Serves us better to just keep barrelling forward and hope the demons can’t keep up, so you might as well be who you are.”
Antonio was silent.
“Who are you?” Asked James.
“I am Antonio Fernandes.”
“And what do you do?”
“I play football.”
“That’s it then, play your football in your style. A style admired by thousands over the years. Many years ago, I fell victim to the same cruelty that threatens you today. Don’t let them get the better of you.”
“Thank you, sir,” replied Antonio and wiped his tears.
Since that day he attended his counselling sessions, stopped watching news or reading the papers and practiced hard. A couple of months later Manchester was plagued by injuries. That’s when the coach decided it was time to give Antonio another shot. Antonio was in the starting lineup for the biggest game of the season at Old Trafford, a derby against Manchester City. As soon as the game started, the opposition fans started their chanting. Antonio made a slow start to the game as he tried to ignore them. 30 minutes into the game and Manchester United won a penalty kick. The captain graciously gave the ball to Antonio, knowing a goal can alter the course of his career. Antonio placed the ball on the spot and took a few steps back. The opposition fans started chanting loudly once again. Antonio took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes.
“Who are you?” James’ voice echoed in his head. Suddenly he felt like a little boy once again, the same boy who had scored that magical free kick for PFC. He opened his eyes, ran in and dispatched the ball into the top right corner. It was an unstoppable shot, perfectly placed. Emotions ran high as he ran to where the opposition fans were sitting and screamed as loudly as he could. The fans were silenced, it was like the hyenas had been silenced by the roar of a lion. That Goal changed everything for Antonio. His confidence was back and he played one of the best games of his life. He cemented his place in the starting lineup and silenced his critics by his performance on field. There was no looking back for him. Till date, he remains the most successful Indian football player and the only to play for Manchester.
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