IT'S A RARE THING to find a footballer who is well spoken. This is something journalists everywhere have to deal with. Even the most creative footballer, articulate with his feet on the pitch in the most incredible ways, can be shy and reserved and you'll be hard pressed to get two good lines out of him for your damned copy. This is one reason my meeting with Kean Lewis stood out big time.
On a rather hot Mumbai afternoon, the Mohun Bagan player and I met up at a chocolateria in Andheri. What began as an interview turned into a full-fledged football adda of more than 3 hours that went by in no time. His eloquence became obvious when the talk inevitably turned to the raging topic of the day in Indian football, the ISL. On a topic most players like to dodge, Kean's reply carried unblinking clarity,
"Marketing-wise ISL has done very well. There's a lot of money in it. But if you put the same money and marketing into I-League it will be a better league. Playing in the ISL is great for the players; they get to enjoy good facilities and a level of professionalism that I-League still falls short of... they get to play beside some experienced international players, under great coaches and everything. But having 6 foreign players in the starting line-up means only about 110-odd Indian players are playing over there. Having such high number of foreign players is good for marketing, but the development aspect of it progresses at a snail's place because the foreign players are taking the centre-stage. To change the game you need more Indian players. There's the issue with FIFA recognition as well."
The son of Pearl and Foster Lewis of Patlipada, Thane, the 23 year old winger-striker has the lean, straight-as-a-stick build that you see in seasoned athletes. But nothing about Kean's welcoming, chatty personality gives away the fact that he has had one of the most unusual and interesting career paths you'll come across among Indian footballers. In his own words,
"It's been one long walk down unknown roads for me. I've gotten used to that by now.
Born to a family where no one has ever pursued a professional career in sports before, Kean was a naturally athletic kid who was into football, basketball, swimming, track and field... basically any sport that pushed him physically and mentally. In his school football team that played in the Mumbai School Sports Association championship, he played as a striker and even served as a goalkeeper for penalties. The year his principal, John Lewis, spotted him was a special one: apart from being the tournament's highest scorer, he saved a penalty in the final.
It was his principal who persuaded his parents to send him to the Mahindra United under-15 trials. He became the youngest player to make the cut. The next year he made it into the Maharashtra under-16 team; coming on in the trial game 5 minutes left in the game and scoring the only goal of the match. That was 10 years ago, when he was 13.
Fast forward 10 years, and he looks back on a journey that has taken him through some of the biggest academies in India, an u-23 squad of an MLS franchise and a professional football club in Mexico. Most of it has been a balancing act between sports and education; a struggle that every aspiring athlete in India has to go through.
Looking back, Kean saw going to the USA to study sports management in Fairleigh Dickinson University as a major turning point in his life,
"I always knew that sports is not a lifelong career. The life-span of a sportsman is 10-15 years. I always had to keep up with my education. That's one of the biggest reasons I went to the US. Doing sports management, I was happy because it kept me connected to the game."
At the university squad, he encountered a level of professionalism and an approach to the sport that would shape the way he thought of himself as an athlete. Kean recounted:
"Fitness was an issue, but I had already been introduced to fitness regimens at Tata Football Academy. But in the US it's very scientific. They'll thoroughly study your body and keep track of it; and you have to meet certain fitness standards. That's when I realised fitness is not just those cardio and stuff that I did in TFA but it's about meeting those times if you want to play at that level."
Suddenly, he was held to a whole new standard, and had a specific set of goals, achieving which would mould him for the hardships of a professional footballer,
"Their system is very solid. So whether you play college, USL or MLS, they all have the same fitness thing; even Bradley and Dempsey do the same fitness timings that we do in college. So even when one gets called up to the national team, it's not like they have to do something completely different. The styles may be different because the coaches are different... in my 4 years at college I went from a forward to a winger and back to a forward. I even played left and right back sometimes. This versatility I picked up in the college level. And tactically I became very solid. So subsequent moves to Houston Dynamo and Loredo Heat weren't very hard."
At MLS club Houston Dynamo, apart from being in the U-23 team, Kean also got some invaluable experience in coaching, working with the kids at their academy. And as a player, he played a few challenging games, the most memorable of which was against Brazilian club Cruzerio that featured ex Real Madrid and Arsenal player Julio Baptista. Kean scored a goal and assisted in another in that game,
"It was a very challenging game because they had top players. With the Heat in Texas, for us being an U-23 team and them a professional team, I think we played very well. That was one of my best games for Dynamos. I was coming off an injury as well."
And it was around then that he got an opportunity to ply his trade at Inter Acapulco, a third division club from Mexico. He lapped up the challenge; it was his chance to break into first team professional football in a country ranked 23rd in the world,
"A scout from Acapulco came over and there was a tryout; and I was selected. I went there for post-season. I was given accomodation with a local family. I had to start learning Spanish. I downloaded apps and learned the language in my free time. Sometimes we'd use Google Translate to communicate with each other."
But the opportunity went to waste when Inter Acapulco suddenly shut down. But Kean is keen to take only the positives from the whole episode,
"Learning Spanish helped me later on. I could communicate with Judelin Aveska with ease."
Eager to taste some first team action, Kean looked for opportunities closer to home. But the search for a new team proved to be harder than he thought. His exploits in the US, including video clips, were of no use and being a foreign-returned misfit with few contacts, a trial was very hard to get,
"Looking for teams has been about stepping out of my comfort zone. I wanted a trial at Pune FC but it never happened. I even tried at Mumbai FC but it didn't come to much. I went out to many clubs, begging for a chance, but didn't get it. In the end one of my dad's friends knew Anjan Dutta who got me the trial at Mohun Bagan. That's how it came about. You have to give it your best and not get frustrated when disappointments come. You have to take the intiative. That's how it is with thousands of aspiring players. I'm very lucky to have supportive people all around me and thankful for the opportunities that came my way."
But after years of being away from the Indian methods of coaching meant he had to go through a good deal of re-adjustment to Sanjay Sen's way of running things at Mohun Bagan. As with everything else, Kean was frank speaking about them,
"Personally, I'm not used to playing 11 on 11 every day at practice. I feel I don't get enough touches. Back in US we had 5-a-side and 7-a-side games mostly in training; 5-10 minute high-intensity games, switching teams and positions. That way you get a lot of touches and your fitness level goes up. Playing 11 on 11 every day is great for defenders because they see a lot of the ball but others may not get enough touches and it may end up being taxing."
But it wasn't just different tactics that challenged him. Kean also had to learn to cope with the less-than-ideal state of infrastructure and playing conditions that sometimes were downright brutal,
"Playing on artificial turf in daytime has been a problem because the surface heats up a lot under the sun. I have to dip my feet in ice water and basically mummify them with tapes before putting on my shoes. Otherwise after the game they'll get blisters that will bleed and turn into clots. It's very painful to play through that. But adaptability is important for a player. You have to get used to all kinds of conditions."
Despite all that strife, Kean Lewis had a decent outing in the Calcutta Football League. He was played as a winger as well as forward and his performance and work-rate drew a lot of praise from fans and media. He scored a few goals too.
Kean looked back at his first outing in a first-team competition and the attention in brought in,
"Kolkata is the only place where they have such die-hard fans. The fans are very passionate, and you can tell that at games, by their reaction after wins and defeats. It's very intense, the craze around the matches and the media presence. I have a lot of articles with my pictures and everything but I have no idea what they're saying because it's all in Bengali... one good or bad game can make you a hero or a villain. Personally I'm not a fan of that kind of scrutiny; football is a team sport, and one player can only do so much. And sometimes, God gives the other team a chance. But it's a great feeling to have so many people who know you when you walk around and cheer for you when you play. It gives even new players an idea about how important it is to give our best. And in the end, this emotion, irrationality and excitement is what makes a sport special. That's what you want from fans."
But Mohun Bagan, playing without most of their first team regulars due to ISL obligations lost the title to arch rivals East Bengal who went on to win their 6th CFL title in a row. In the highly anticipated encounter between these two clubs -- Kean's first time playing a Kolkata Derby -- the Red and Gold brigade demolished the Mariners by a 4-0 margin. Kean didn't hide his dissatisfaction about that campaign,
"Me, Katsumi and a couple of other players like to play the ball on the ground. But the Indian defenders, in general, have a tendency to play long balls. Now, most of your creative players are short and good with the ball at their feet. The strikers, too, need it at their feet. So playing long balls to strikers, and then blaming them for not doing enough, is wrong. Everyone needs to be on the same page tactically and understand each other. Long ball should be a last-ditch option."
That said, he knew that I-League was going to be a different beast. With a full-strength squad and enough preparations, Kean was optimistic for good results,
"The coaching and the chemistry in the team is going to be key this season. It'll define how we deal with injuries and overcome tough fixtures... playing in Asia is the biggest challenge, and most exciting. We might be up against, say, a club from China where football infrastructure is more developed. So it will be a tough task. We can't predict how things will turn out but it's part of the sport. As times pass, we'll train hard, bond as a team and try to find a way to win."
It was clear that Kean was looking at the year 2016 as a defining time in his career. He wanted I-League to be the platform where he established himself in the Indian footballing circle, playing in the ISL and possibly looking for a stint abroad. But looking back at the last decade he spent trying to make his dream of becoming a professional footballer into a reality, one of his biggest takeaways, the one he wanted other aspiring atheletes like him to pay attention to, was the necessity of education,
"Education is important so you can fall back on something after retirement. I've done sports management, I've done coaching. I want to continue engaging with football even after my playing days are over but I also have a dream to open my own restaurant. And the management degree will help me in a lot of ways. But if you don't have that education it can become way harder for you... studying and playing at the same time is very hard, especially in India. In a city like Mumbai you'll spend 30% of your time travelling, squeezing daily training and studying into the rest. And the training is draining both mentally and physically. So it's tough, no doubt. But you have to find a way to balance all of that and be ready for some hard work. And enjoy the basics as much as possible. That's what gives your game a solid base."
As he sat there allowing himself a rare indulgence in hot chocolate, I struggled to think of another footballer in the country with a story like his. A creative, multi-position attacking footballer with a college degree, foreign training and a coaching license all at the age of 23; coming out of a part of the country where football has little popularity, taking his first steps in the highest level of domestic football in India. And he wanted to open a restaurant after all this was over.
Most players -- and other people -- that you come across talk about living "the dream." But Kean Lewis has many dreams that he wants to live. They range from playing the sport he loves, running a restaurant to following his parents' example of deeply engaging in charity and volunteer work in the community, churches and orphanages. He spoke of each dream with clarity. For each one he had a plan. And each of them are at different stages of becoming reality.
Perhaps most people have multiple dreams. Maybe in the end they are left with just one because life and time has exhausted the other ones. But this is where Kean Lewis stands apart from most; he has spent his time chasing and juggling a number of dreams, sparing no effort in fighting for every single of them. He has pursued them to the other end of the planet, he has chased them through stern training sessions and blistering field turfs.
And the fruits of his labour have just begun to ripe.