26-year-old Abhishek Ambekar became a household name in the domestic football circuit this year, with his awe-inspiring performance in the I-League. Growing up, he always harbored an innate love for the sport, with his grandfather pointing out the finer nuances of the game on the television. He began with Air India under-19 side and pursued his passion. However, he was stopped midfield for two years, being forced to adhere to a career in search of job security. This didn’t last long though. He made a comeback with Minerva Punjab FC and how! He played a key role in Minerva Punjab’s successful I-League run this season and is now aiming to don the national jersey. Here is an exclusive tête-à-tête with him.
Highlights of the episode
- It was the pre-season practice and team bonding that finally led Minerva to victory.
- Understanding that hard work always beats talent.
Quotes and Takeaways From Abhishek Ambekar
- “…keep working hard as there is no substitute for hard work.”
- “You need to be competitive and have a winning attitude. That would definitely give you an edge over and above the other players.”
When did you start playing football and at what point did you decide to make it your profession?
I started playing when I was really young, in around my third standard of school. I was always into athletics and my father used to take me for a lot of treks. It was my grandfather who actually instilled the love for football into me. He was very keen on watching Indian football and he was a huge Godfrey Pereira fan. In fact, Godfrey Pereira coached me for my under-19 team. Anyway, so we used to passionately watch football and that’s how my interest in the game grew. Then I began playing in school, gradually playing at the inter-school level, and then for the State. I was extremely competitive when it came to football. This is how it started.
However, my parents wanted me to become an engineer. So in 11th and 12th standard, I was preparing for my engineering entrance exams. I still used to play private tournaments here and there, as well as State ones then. One fine day, I met a friend of mine at a private tournament and he told me about the clubs. I didn’t know about them before. He encouraged me to go for Air India Club trials. Until then football was just a hobby for me. However, I did go for the trials and I got selected. The coach was really impressed with me on the second day itself, even though the trial goes on for twenty days.
The next hurdle was convincing my parents. My parents wanted me to focus on my studies and appear for the engineering entrance exams like I mentioned earlier. However, that wasn’t where my heart was. Anyway, I took my 12th standard board exams and the selection happened after that. I then gathered all my courage and told my father. But he is very strict and asked me to leave the house if I wanted to continue playing. He told me you’re on your own and started packing all my stuff! I was stubborn too and left. This was at night, at around 10 pm. I then went to the watchman and asked him to shelter me for a night. Luckily, my father’s anger subsided and he came out to speak to me before I left. We had a discussion and I explained to him how big the opportunity was. The next day he spoke to my coach Mr. Yusuf Ansari, who has been an Under-19 India coach. He told my father that he believes in my talent and that he sees me playing for the country in the future. My father got convinced, but asked me to continue with my studies as well.
So this is how I started. I played for Air India for two years. I captained the team in my second year and got promoted, finally making me debut for the I-League in 2011.
What has your training been like since you started playing?
Honestly, I don’t have a fixed routine as such. I do put in efforts to stay fit though because when I was young, I was a very lanky kid. I hated myself then as I couldn’t compete with the big boys due to my physique. So I told my father about it and he hired me a professional trainer. We used to pay him 7k per month for having him personally attend to me. He used to travel all the way from Lalbag to Thane. At night I used to go to the gym. I began seeing a change after a year of constant hard work. I felt I was stronger and faster. It made me faster and that’s my major quality as a winger.
These days I do a lot of cross fit in the morning, agility and ball work training as well as gymming. I diversify my training as the muscles require a lot of complex movements. Football training is once a day, every single day.
You made your I-League debut in 2011 and have since then played with quite a few clubs. What has been your most memorable moment so far?
There have been quite a few memorable moments actually. I’ve won a lot of trophies, but it was when I won the Durand Cup that I was recognized as a rising star. I was playing alongside really big stars then, and all the players were established. Despite this, I was recognized by everybody and so it was a really proud feeling for me.
My father was equally proud of me and that made me extremely happy. He in fact used to put up projectors in my colony to watch the match, cheering for me!
You’ve of course trained with a lot of coaches. Name one coach who left the greatest impact on you.
I’ve had quite a few great coaches. To mention a few, I’ve trained with Godfrey Pereira, Yusuf Ansari, Bimal Ghosh and many Maharashtra coaches as well.
But one person who I would want to mention separately here is Bimal Ghosh, who is also known as the “Prince of Indian Football”. He has given the most number of players to the country. He was my coach when I played with the Mumbai Tigers. He saw something in me and would ask me to practice even after the practice sessions were over. He would make me do crosses, take shots, etc. He really polished me as a player. He made me practice throw-ins as well, which was one of my qualities this year at the I-League. All these techniques were developed because of Bimal Sir and I will always thank him for it.
Also, there is a licensing criterion for football. Bimal sir is a very seasoned coach but he is very old school, so he doesn’t believe in getting licensed. But I personally feel that he should be given a chance to coach some I-League or ISL team. Because whichever team he takes up, it stakes a claim to the title. We need such coaches in our country.
Congratulations on winning the Hero I-League! Now, a year back, Minerva Punjab FC was languishing at the bottom of the I-League table. What do you think worked in your favor this time and what did your team do differently than the others?
Honestly, I don’t have much knowledge about what went down last year. All I know is that Minerva did have good players last year as well. However, this year the difference was the pre-season practice. It was extremely tough. We had hydrotherapy sessions every morning at 4 am, wherein we were made to exercise in the water for resistance training. We also had cross fit training. And there were just so many repetitions, with our coach not stopping even at a count of 100. That completely altered our body’s metabolism. Also, our practices used to be recorded and re-visited after the sessions to point out our strong and weak points. I think that really helped us grow.
Besides, we had really good coaches. In fact for our coach Mr. Sachin Badadhe, this was his first time ever with the I-League and he emerged as a champion. With such training, the team spirit also automatically grew. The bonding increased. So when we were on the ground, we were all playing for the team, and covering for each other on our bad days. Also, there weren’t any big players this year. So all of us wanted to make a mark and we played like a team! I think that was the main reason for our victory.
Your performance has been greatly credited for Minerva Punjab FC’s success in I-League. What do you think kept you motivated throughout, enabling you to give a consistent performance?
I had a very tough time before I-League. The two years before this were very difficult for me as I had to stay away from professional football. I could only play for Maharashtra. I had taken up a job at the RBI and their rules didn’t allow it. So all my friends were playing professionally out there and all I could do was sit in front of the TV and watch them. It was an extremely difficult phase for me.
But then luckily new rules were introduced which allowed me to play professionally and I jumped right in! So I knew the importance of this opportunity. It was also my grandpa’s dream to see me play professionally. He is no more, but I wanted to do justice to his dream.
Also, I was hoping to win the championship as that is one way by which I could have ended up in the national team, which is my ultimate dream.
In flashback, what has been the greatest learning experience in your career so far?
Honestly, I think I learn something every day! But since my childhood, one thing I’ve always believed in is experience is one thing you can’t replace. Also, that hard work beats talent any day. This game requires a lot of determination and hunger to win. With just talent, you can never become a legendary player; you can only be average then. I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t just relax and expect the team to win. You have to put in efforts every single day. The results will automatically show then.
What are your goals for this year?
My immediate goal right now is getting into the national team. Once I’m there, my next goal would be to make the India ranking better.
I also feel that the Indian coach should look for players who are performing well currently. Our country hasn’t done too well in football so far. But I believe that if you select the best players, India will start doing well. I have friends who I feel deserve to play for the country. I myself am confident that I deserve to do the same. It’s all on the coach though. It’s his decision at the end of the day.
What is your message for the aspiring footballers reading this interview?
My message to them would be to keep working hard as there is no substitute for hard work. The more you play, the more experience you’ll have and the better you will be at it. So I think that is what is most important to really leave a mark.
Also, attitude is the key. You need to be competitive and have a winning attitude. That would definitely give you an edge over and above the other players.