Can’t keep him down

He’s Grown A Self-Confessed Fondness For Things That Come The Hard Way And Rahul Bheke Is Quick To Attribute Every Bit Of Success To A Scar That Reminds Him Of The Quest…

He’s got no tune that blares on the speakers as he walks into the arena, let alone an entourage or shorts with his name emblazoned in gold; but Rahul Bheke is every bit the boxer – one who strangely scores his points not by how many he’s landed, but by how much has been inflicted on him. By his own admission, he’s reluctant to drop a shoulder for fear of losing out on the lesson the punch could teach him.

Like most first chapters that professional footballers turn back to, Bheke’s dalliance with the game began in school. But the rest of his voyage took more than just a little detour before he reached where he intended getting to, in the first place. “Would I have preferred a simpler route? All I’ll say is that my mates from school, who were twice as talented footballers as I was, aren’t in the sport anymore. We dived into football together, but they all seemed to have alternate career options. Not me,” says Bheke, with a hint of gratitude. Selected to attend exposure camps in Italy and Denmark, priorities at home meant he missed the plane on both occasions. He’s missed a lot of ‘planes’ since then, but it’s never deterred him from wanting to take flight.

Naushad Moosa, Head Coach of Bengaluru FC B, had Bheke on his squad when he was at the helm of the Mumbai FC U18s and he doesn’t recall the boy ever missing a training session despite having to commute two hours one way by train, every single day of the week.

Bheke’s first switch to a club outside Mumbai came in 2015 with a move to East Bengal and life in the club’s yellow and gold shirt was far from easy. “I was shuttling between the stands and the bench during the club’s CFL campaign and it took a suspension for them to turn to me,” recollects Bheke. Never one to harbour bitterness, Bheke grabbed his chance and scored a winner in his first game against SAI, the equaliser that sparked a revival in a 4-3 win against Kalighat and then topped it with the sweetest one of them all – a goal in the derby. “They couldn’t drop me even if they wanted to, after that.”

Strangely, most of Bheke’s stories follow an eerily similar routine – anticipation, disappointment, opportunity and success. The defender recalls sitting in the café at East Bengal along with his teammates, watching in the Indian Super League draft that they were all a part of. “One by one, everyone around me got picked up by an ISL club till the draft was done. I wanted to go to my room and cry.” But a mid-season call-up from Kerala Blasters to replace an injured player was just the chance Bheke needed. “I was told I would be taken to make up the numbers and I was fine with that. You can give me any reason you want to, just give me one chance along with all those reasons.” Needless to say, the bench wasn’t the place for him in Kerala.

Bheke says the move to Bengaluru FC was the best thing that happened to him in professional football. “Every single thing is different at BFC. I could list it all down compared to all the other experiences I have had and then it would make more sense,” he says.

But his big moment came miles away from the city of Bengaluru. “I missed out on that tour to Milan and the chance to see San Siro as a kid. I had a passport with a five-year validity then and it just expired because I kept aside the dream of setting foot inside a big stadium. Then two years ago, we were in Spain on our pre-season and on our way to Alicante, took an unscheduled detour to Camp Nou. I was standing inside the stadium of my favourite club and I didn’t need to raise money to make it there. These are small things, but they make you grateful for what football has given you,”

Football, Bheke says, has also taught him to shed bitterness when things aren’t going the way you want them to. “Was I disappointed at not making the cut for the AFC Asian Cup? Yes. Was I bitter? Not at all. When I saw how people from all over the country – and these are the ones I don’t even know – call for me to be in the team, it felt nice. That respect I received, I can never put a value on it.”

Moosa recalls an incident from 2009 where the Mumbai FC U18s had traveled to Phagwara to play the JCT juniors. “Sukhwinder Singh was the national team coach then and was coming to watch the game. In a bid to get the best out of the boys, I told them he would be watching from the stands. Rahul had a howler of a game and I later realised that while my intentions were good, I may have made an error in judgement by letting the boys know. He struggled to shake that performance off.”

Ten years on, Bheke missed out on what was India’s biggest dance on the continental stage, but Moosa wants the boy to get credit for the way he’s dealt with the sorrow this time. “If he was hurting inside, you couldn’t tell. On the outside, Rahul was a player who was giving one hundred percent at every training session for Bengaluru FC. It says everything you need to know about him,” says Moosa.

You also couldn’t tell that Bheke had lost his father 48 hours before the game against Mumbai on Sunday. The boy flew to Mumbai, performed the last rites in his village, then flew back to join the team in Bengaluru before making his way to Mumbai once again, and then onto the pitch – all without revealing any hint of grief.

“Before football, I used to loiter on every street around home, sit on the roofs of local trains and do some very stupid things. Then one night in bed I asked myself what I was making with the one life I’ve been given. In one single instant, I embraced football and it embraced me back. I’ve seen a lot in a little time and football has always been the answer,” he says.

The anticipation and disappointment have been swept under the rug. The routine now calls for a chance and we all know how that pans out when Bheke gets one.

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