For football aficionados in India, watching a game involving their heroes live is a huge accomplishment. Hence, it comes as no surprise when the likes of Maradona, Pele and Oliver Khan visited India; they were thronged with crowds that gathered for as far as the eye could see.
Now, you can only imagine what it would be like if a youngster, all of 16, was selected among thousands of other participants from around the country to train at Old Trafford with the world famous Manchester United. Brandon Fernandes has that distinction, a claim that could make his best friends go green with envy.
For many, getting that far would mean having achieved a dream that was, not long ago, improbable. A story they could tell their grandchildren. But Fernandes dared to dream higher and now he is on the cusp of achieving what no native Indian has ever done – earning a contract with a top division English club, with Reading set to offer him a deal.
It would be easy to attribute the hype around a young footballer to the training he received at the famous Manchester School, but the truth remains that Fernandes, like most footballers in a developing country, had to push his way through a lot of smaller clubs before his talent caught the eye.
There hadn't been any shortage of admirers for the lad from Goa. He was snapped up by prestigious Indian club, Salgaocar FC when he was just 13 and the management saw no harm in making the midfielder play in their-19 side, such was his talent.
Fernandes was also a constant figure in the National youth teams, representing the Blue Tigers in the U-13, U-16, U-17 and U-19 levels, and it was here that the ones who mattered started to notice the boy's undeniable talent. African Soccer Development (ASD), of Cape Town, soon roped in the promising youngster and it was here that Fernandes began to blossom.
In an exclusive interview, Brandon spoke of his disbelief when he first heard about the trial. “My first reaction was that I really couldn't believe this! A Premiership trial is not something that happens to Indian players. I'm so excited and I just really hope I can do my country proud.”
Brandon's climb to the top has been anything but easy. He comes from a country that doesn't have the best backing for a young soccer player and, in spite of possessing oodles of talent, his diminutive physique makes him susceptible to physical challenges. A point emphasized by ASD's director, Mike Steptoe:
“At first we were not sure (about Brandon). He had great skill but no physicality and he didn't settle because of the lure of playing U17 and U19 for India.”
Steptoe added that playing for India actually proved to be detrimental to his growth as a player and that it was only when the lure of playing football for Indian sides diminished that Fernandes could take the leap forward.
“Unfortunately his International career impeded his development. He has made rapid progress over the past twelve months whilst not playing internationally. We always knew he had the potential but it was critical that we had to have more time with him,” suggested Steptoe.
“Brandon is a very determined young man with good character and will be a role model for Indian football. He is a quick learner and hungry to perform at the highest level.” said Steptoe when I spoke to him recently.
Fernandes, for a boy of 18, has his heart in right place; “I feel immensely proud (every time I pull on an Indian jersey). It is a great honour to play for my country. I would love to see Indian football go to another level. For that to happen, we need to produce more quality players. I honestly believe we have the talent to do that, and in the meantime I will focus on working hard to take my own game to the next level,” he added.
When quizzed about his strengths, Fernandes said his 'finishing and eye for goal' are the attributes that make him dangerous.
“I am an attacking midfielder, but can play anywhere in the midfield. I think my main strength is in my finishing and my eye for the goal. In that respect, the player I most want to be like in the future is Lionel Messi.”
It's completely normal for a youngster to be carried away with all the hype around him - everyone branding him India's next big star; a trial with a top club; becoming the first Asian to be signed up by the ASD; taking everyone by storm with his virtuoso displays in the National youth team last year. But Fernandes has his feet firmly planted:
“I started playing soccer on the streets with my friends when I was four years old. Most of my family members are into sport, especially soccer. I was mainly encouraged by my dad, and the player I most looked up to as a youngster was Bruno Couthino, from Goa.”
So who does he look up to now? “Nowadays, I don't just look up to one player, rather I look up to many great players who play Midfield like I do. I learn different things from watching different players, but if I was being pushed to name one I would say Cristiano Ronaldo.”
We've heard such talk from almost every other young, promising footballer from all over the globe wanting to emulate Messi and be like Ronaldo. Achieving what the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have done would be the stuff of dreams. But, if there's one thing the Brandon Fernandes story teaches you, it is that dreams can come true!!
Fernandes has his dreams too.... “My ultimate dream would be to play for Manchester United.” Here's hoping, for his and India's sake they come true.
If you want to read more on India's footballing development, there is some excellent further reading at The Times of India.
Follow Vishaal on Twitter @blasphelod.
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