IT WAS A DAY the Blue Tigers spent on the beach. After the rigours of Friday night, the team management decided to get a recovery session going at the Kovalam Beach where they hit the sand and the waves, stretching and swimming to get the match fatigue out of their body. Because Sunday night duty beckons again as India face Nepal in their final group stage game.
Arnab Mondal didn't look like he had a trace of tiredness as he moved brisquely from the hotel elevator into the little conference room at the corner. The centre-back has played more than 1400 minutes of competitive football in the last 85 days, but you wouldn't think that was the case when he carried out the dual role of being a solid defender as well as supplying long balls for Robin Singh and pressing up to provide targeted scoops to Jeje and Sunil yesterday. And he spoke in crisp Hindi with a mouth as sharp as his tackles.
A few days ago he was slogging it out for Atletico de Kolkata in the ISL semi-finals, and now he is here representing his country. He insisted the transition to a new team under a new coach wasn't much of a big deal,
"In the end it's football you have to play. And I don't think you need any extra motivation to play for your country. We played a short tournament of 3 months, didn't win the trophy, but we're professionals. We're used to changes like this. And wearing the India colours is a matter of pride."
That's obviously a sentiment all fans can get behind. But does everyone in the Indian team feel the same way? The question was a nod to the recent incidents where many players showed up late at the national team camp and two of them chose to give the SAFF Championship a miss. Arnab instantly turned into a diplomat,
"I can only speak for myself. I don't know what's going on in other peoples' heads. But I think nobody in this team turns up with the intention to lose. Especially when they play for India."
The topic turned to Chhangte Lallianzuala, the 18 year old who just made history by becoming the youngest player ever to appear for India. Arnab has seen him up close for only a few days, but as he spoke of the youngster there was already a touch of protectiveness,
"He's very hard-working. But he needs to be given time. If you ask instant results from him and get on his case if he doesn't do this or that, it will be a mistake. If the coach has given him a chance he must have seen something in him. And I love his quick-feet and intensity on the ground."
From the youngest player on the squad the topic turned to the charismatic captain Sunil Chhetri. Here, too, Arnab was filled with warmth talking about his colleague,
"Sunil is an amazing leader on the ground, just the kind of man you need to helm things up front. And the best thing is that he has delivered whenever and wherever we needed him the most; be it scoring, hold-up play or a passing game. He's a tremendously important part of the team."
From the star forward the attention went to the star goalkeeper. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, too, has done well for himself at Stabaek FC in Norway, and although he is yet to be given a stern test in the SAFF Championship, has been a solid presence at goal for India for a while now. When asked about the situation in the goalkeeping department where three talented players including Gurpreet, Subrata Paul and Karanjeet Singh are vying to be in the first eleven, Arnab did not want to go into comparisons,
"Gurpreet has played very well in the World Cup Qualifers. He's playing in Europe and that has given him a lot of confidence. And credit also goes to our goalkeeping coach Rogerio Ramos for training him and other keepers in our team so well. Karanjit is a good goalkeeper too. And Subrata is senior, he is giving Gurpreet a lot of tips that are coming handy for him. All of them are capable players."
But the long balls he was playing for Robin and Sunil that got India the win against Sri Lanka may not work against a physically robust side like Afghanistan, who have taller defenders. Arnab explained how strategies can change in those situations,
"The approach changes according to the game. Robin Singh is tall and physically imposing so supplying long balls to him can be effective. But it's not a mandatory thing. If the opponent defenders are taller, it helps to keep the ball on the ground. So that's what we try to do."
The 26 year old has already appeared in 19 matches for India and scored 1 goal. As a prominent member of the team he too has a role in motivating others and keeping up the team spirit. Talking about that, Arnab went back to the basics,
"I tell everyone to give their hundred percent, that's it. Coach Constantine, too, tells us not to waste opportunities to prove ourselves. He says, you have a chance today and there's no guarantee when the next time will be. So give it your best."
About the Nepal game, Arnab left it all on the coach,
"We've just had a game yesterday and tomorrow we play Nepal, it's up to the coach how we'll go about that... Nepal are a god team with a good, speedy attacking line-up and they never stop fighting. It's not like we don't know them. We've played them 3 times already this year. So they know us and we know them. It will be a tougher game than the one against Sri Lanka."
And about Constantine's ambitious long-term plan for the national team, Arnab seemed to be fully supportive,
"Since coach has joined us he has said that our grassroot system needs to improve, so it has to be made better. We have a very busy calendar, so moving things around and changing formations in the national team can cause problems. So what the coach is trying to do is to create a set of 25-odd players who can be a consistent, solid base for the national team for the next 5-6 years. So these efforts, including trying out younger players, will ultimately help Indian football. I really admire his way of thinking. If you don't bring forward junior players, how will you get substitutes? He's working for the future of Indian football."
But will Constantine's plans deliver the quick-fire results that the powers that be in Delhi are so eager for? Here, Arnab was realistic,
"It won't happen overnight. Playing for India comes with a lot of pressure and new players must be given time to adjust to that."
The congested Indian football calendar has recently caused a lot of friction between clubs, ISL franchises and AIFF over releasing players for national duty. This has seen the Blue Tigers' preparations for crucial matches and tournaments get repeatedly hampered. Arnab said,
"I think they should make a more streamlined football calendar that leaves time for everything, from club games to international matches. They should do this for the players as well as for Indian football. If we get a bit more time to prepare for the matches, the national team's results will improve a lot."
As soon as the SAFF Championship gets over, Arnab will return to Kolkata to join East Bengal's preparations for the I-League 2015-16. Speaking about his club's chances this season, Arnab said,
"You can never tell who will be the champion in the end. But East Bengal always make a strong team and play for the title. And that's what we will do this season as well. The rest we'll see on the pitch."