THE ONE THING YOU CAN'T accuse Raju Eknath Gaikwad of being is homesick.
Hailing from Mumbai, he was bitten by the football bug early. Growing up in an environment where he was free to pursue his dreams of making it as a professional sportsperson, Raju knew the life he was choosing was a hard one, and constantly on the road.
He waited for his opportunity and when it came, he never looked back. His career path took him from the humble Mumbai suburbs to clubs around the country, all the way to the Indian national team.
Speaking to TFG, the defender looked back at his journey in the sport; one littered with one unexpected turn after another,
"I come from a sporting family. My father is a Chhatrapati Award Winner for boxing. My brother is also in sports. We grew up in Kalina where there's a deep rooted sporting culture, and opportunities were there if we could take it. There was football in school and some good coaches nearby."
Playing in the U-16 team of Mahindra FC, one of the fiercest top division clubs of the time, Raju was already a part of a supply line that led to a top level club squad. But he had higher ambitions, and for that, he fought his way into the most prestigious academy in the country,
"Tata Football Academy introduced me to the big stage and turned me into a professional. We had a great time there, lots of good memories... I was playing for Mahindra U-16 and we had a tournament in Kolkata. Coaches from TFA Vijay Kumar and Ranjan Chaudhary had come over for selection, and I got picked for trials, after which they selected me for the academy."
After graduating from the TFA, he immediately found multiple suitors for his talents at the top division league. He was already playing for the junior national teams and was considered to be one of the hottest new talents in the country. But the challenge players like him faced was that while they would be picked up by big clubs, they would have to spend a lot of time on the bench in the first couple of years to break into the first team, competing against players with years of experience.
But luckily for Raju, he got a call-up from the Arrows project; which was a chance for him to be immediately thrust into action in the I-League and pick up valuable experience, without having to spend a long time battling up the ranks,
"I had already signed for East Bengal for two years before I went over to Indian Arrows. Back then I was playing for U-20 national team, and AIFF came up with the idea of taking players from junior national teams, mixing them up and playing them in the top division league. So I got picked from the Arrows from there. We had a good year there, we finished seventh or eighth. The league was tough that year and we gave a good account of ourselves without experienced senior players or foreigners. After the spell with Arrows I went back to East Bengal."
Talking about his time playing in Kolkata, Raju Gaikwad sounded nostalgic about the excitement of the fans there, and the thrill of playing in front of large crowds,
"There's a little pressure there, especially when you are young. Playing big matches like the Derby... the fans, officials, everyone puts a bit of pressure on you. But once you get used to it, you settle down a bit. In a year or two you get to know how it works, and the pressure goes away. Playing in that atmosphere - big crowd, lots of fans - it felt really good to be there."
As he made his presence felt at the highest level, the Indian football landscape was going through a major change. The Indian Super League debuted in 2014, and Raju got a chance to play at Mumbai City FC for the first two editions,
"My first season at Mumbai City didn't go that great. Early on I didn't get too many chances, later I got but didn't play that many games. Next year, though, I had a good time. It's good to play in different places, different clubs, experiencing different conditions. We get to know more about different states and grow in experience. So it was good for us."
In 2015, after 4 seasons at East Bengal, Raju joined Mohun Bagan. Direct transfers between the arch rival clubs is almost always controversial, but Gaikwad who had developed a reputation for being a cool headed team player, managed to avoid that heat and focus on the game,
"For the fans, it may be a move that's frowned upon. But as a player, it's a precious experience to play for clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. For me, the more I get to do something like that, the better, so I was really comfortable... experiencing the atmosphere of playing in Kolkata from both sides, I grew in experience day by day."
At both clubs, Raju enjoyed a certain level of success, which included getting his hands on the Federation Cup, the premier cup competition in the country,
"I won the Federation Cup with both clubs. I won it at East Bengal when it was played in Siliguri, and I won it in Guwahati with Mohun Bagan. The atmosphere at the airport when we arrived with the trophy was sublime; the fans had come out in numbers and packed the entire area, they were partying all the way from the airport to the club. It was amazing, I'll never forget it. This is what's special about playing in Kolkata; that craze is there, that respect is there for the players."
But his most cherished memories come from playing for the national team. He sounded nostalgic as he recounted the pathway that led to him earning the right to represent the Blue Tigers,
"We were playing at Indian Arrows and the same coach was appointed as the India U-23 head coach. So we had the same coach and mostly the same players in the U-23 national team as well, which was good for us. There was no adaptation factor, we just continued playing with the same team with pre-existing understanding of each other. We had a really good time there. Everybody was really motivated to prove themselves and we had a good coach, obviously. And soon I got the call up from the senior national team, when Bob Houghton was still the head coach. I played one tournament under him in Malaysia, after which he left. Playing with those experienced players at that level really grew my confidence."
Now, having played across the country, Gaikwad has a nostalgic view of the big crowds in Kolkata and Goa, and the time he spent there as a player,
"In my view, the crowds at Kolkata and Goa are a little different from each other. The fans in Kolkata are a bit more aggressive and the expectations are very high in every match. It's a bit different in Goa. When the ISL started, the crowd was coming out in high numbers, so it was really good; both the Goan and Kolkata crowds are good in their own way, but a little different from each other. I had an amazing time playing in FC Goa. Zico was there, I had a good time playing under a coach like him."
His one regret about his time in FC Goa, though, is not being able to play in the final of ISL 2015,
"I played the semi-final but got an injury before the final and missed that match. As a match, the final was very good. I was watching at the stadium. Goa played well, Chennaiyin were good too. But in the last minute we conceded and missed out on the trophy."
But his journey as a player came to a full circle when he went back to his Tata Football Academy roots, signing for newly introduced ISL franchise Jamshedpur FC,
"When I got the call from Jamshedpur FC, immediately I was 80% certain that yeah, I want to join. Because I came out of there, that's where I became a professional football player. I am a Tata Football Academy alumni. And now that a professional team from there has come out, I had a dream of playing there and experiencing it. They have some great infrastructure here at TFA and Jamshedpur FC, I have not seen anything like this in any other Indian club. I'm really comfortable here and having a good time at this team."
Although some recent results have put a dent on the Red Miners' ISL playoff aspirations, Raju believes neither him nor the other players will give up on the top four hopes till the end,
"Yes, the fight is tough. But we do have a chance of finishing in the top four. We have some difficult matches coming up, because a lot of teams are in the top four race, but we are prepared to give our best."
Recently, he returned to his former club's den when FC Goa hosted Jamshedpur FC. Gaikwad started the game and it ended in a goalless draw. Playing against a former team, he says, is a special occasion to him as a player,
"When I play against a former club, it motivates me in some part. I feel good; whenever I face a team, an extra motivation comes from inside... I don't know. Yes, when I was playing for Mohun Bagan there was extra motivation to beat East Bengal; but that may just be because of the Derby rivalry. Because for East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans a Derby is an event in itself. When you see the atmosphere, the excitement around the Derby, you understand the importance of the game immediately. The energy and the motivation flows from the fans to the players... when you are young and playing a Derby for the first time, you feel the pressure. But when you get used to it, you feel like, I want to play this match again and again. In the first Derby of this season, I was in the stadium with my wife. She had never seen a Derby match before and wanted to experience it, so we went and had a good time."
Soon afterwards, Jamshedpur FC played Mumbai City and beat them one nil, although Raju did not feature in that game.
Although he is playing in ISL, Raju Gaikwad is keenly keeping track of the situation in the top flight league of the country, I-League. Talking about the title race unfolding there, he said,
"East Bengal have a good chance I think. Chennai City are still ahead and they are playing really well, but I believe East Bengal can catch up if they try hard... I am watching a lot of I-League matches on TV. I can't really see any difference between I-League and ISL. Some teams are doing really well in I-League. A lot of good young players are coming up there. Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Chennai City and Real Kashmir especially are really doing good."
Back at Jamshedpur FC, the situation is getting tougher; with 2 games at hand and a 4 point gap between JFC and 4th placed Mumbai City, Raju does not see any other way but to fight hard to win the remaining matches and hope for some other games to have favourable outcomes so they end up in top four,
"Everybody is giving their best. We're really working hard from the coach to the players and we'll fight till the end to finish in the top four. The fans and officials have great expectations from us... it's not really important to be at the top of the table since we have semi-finals and final after that but if we can make it in the top four it's really nice."
So far, Gaikwad has started in 5 matches this season. Fighting for a place in a team like Jamshedpur FC that has considerable squad depth is always tough but he remains optimistic,
"I started a couple of games, and then picked up an injury. I recovered, but I didn't make the cut for a couple of matches, maybe the coach's decision was there. After that, before the international break, I started in a couple more games. Now everything is fine, it all depends on the coach now how much chance I get."
And he is not ready to blame the long international break during the Asian Cup 2019 for JFC's lost momentum,
"During the break the players got some rest and got to come back fresh... now we are focused on giving our best. We had some injuries in the squad but now everyone is fit, so that's good for us too."
Watching from the sidelines as the India played their first Asian Cup in 8 years, he feels the national team has gone through a significant improvement in recent years,
"I think the improvament of the national team has been really good. The boys really played their hearts out in every game. But it can happen with anyone. It was hard luck for us but that's all part of the game. We were unlucky to lose the game to Bahrain in the last moment... I was hopeful for a draw because we were playing really well in the tournament. Especially the performances of Sandesh Jhingan and Sunil Chhetri really impressed me."
But Raju himself has fallen off the national team roster; having played regularly from 2011 to 2014, he has not been called back to the Blue Tigers' camp for more than 4 years now,
"Yeah I was playing for the national team and dropped off from it at some point. I'll just continue giving my best and working hard, the rest I'll leave it to the coach whether I'll get a national team call-up again."
Even after a decade in professional football, Raju Gaikwad's journey remains one of constant uphill battle, whether it's about getting Jamshedpur FC into the ISL playoffs or getting his place back in the national team.