Politics, Pollution and Paartalu

For Most Foreigners, A Stint In India Means ‘Getting By Without Trouble’, But Not For Erik Paartalu. The Aussie Dives Deep, With An Opinion On Things That He Can Change Or Can Change Him…

He’s the king of 50-50s and he would fancy his chances even at 70-30, with the odds stacked against him. And off the field, Erik Paartalu holds a similar approach. When he moved to Bengaluru, the Australian says he fell in love with the city for the way it embraced him; at the airport on the 19th of July, 2017.

“I was blown away by how the people came out to welcome me. It was my first day here, and I hadn’t even kicked a ball for the club. But there were people at the airport, near midnight, who had dropped by to just say hello. It meant a lot and from then it’s just been a great experience. I didn’t come here to put another club on my CV. I came here to be a part of this country, the culture and to grow as an individual as well,” Paartalu says.

He’s often on the wrong end of criticism for his opinion on social issues related to the country on Social Media, and Paartalu’s reasoning (not that he needs one) is simple. “I care. Like every other country, India has fantastic points and also things that need changing. I live here now, I rent an apartment and I’ve set up a whole life for myself and my wife, Amy. When I have an opinion, people on social media often say ‘Why are you speaking? You are Australian and it has nothing to do with you.’ But, I’m sorry, it does. I pay taxes in this country and I breathe the same air. If I can add a little bit of insight without being disrespectful, then I will. It’s only because I care. That’s all there really is.”

With stints at 12 clubs in 15 years, Paartalu is the most travelled footballer on the Blues’ roster. But has he been able to embrace every country the way he has taken to India? “The simple answer would be no. I’ve tried to be one with every place I’ve travelled but sometimes the language barrier, among other things, makes it really hard. I’ve said things and disagreed with things when I maybe should have kept quiet, but that is my personality. Once or twice in my career it even cost me my contracts, but I won’t change that for the world because that is who I am. I sleep happily knowing that I won’t let somebody stand over me or anyone else.”

Paartalu’s Instagram account, when he’s not in the gym or reposting pictures of the cows he’s grown to love, shows him wearing an anti-pollution mask, traveling in rickshaws. So why does an Australian, earning the big bucks playing football, choose this mode of transport over an air-conditioned cab?

“Until last year I would hire taxis all the time and I would never get a rickshaw because I was worried. But ever since I found the mask, I’ve had no problem getting on the rickshaw. People send me messages on Instagram saying it’s not polluted here. But, it’s not about the pollution, it is about the dust. As an athlete, my lungs are important so I hope no one takes offense. The other side of it is that when I step out, I know that a cab would only cost me little money. But the rickshaw drivers that work every single day are waiting there for us. It isn’t about feeling good about myself that I am helping someone or changing their lives. I just know that these guys work hard for a living. I don’t think they get paid enough, because the petrol prices are high here, more even than in Australia. And we pay so much lesser for travel. It’s just a little solace in my head that maybe it helps them just a bit more.”

At 32, Paartalu knows that time isn’t waiting for him. But much before we can finish the question we’ve prepared, his answer is ready. “I am planning for the future here. I’ve never said to myself ‘Oh, I’m 32 now. Soon I’ll have to retire and move out of the country’. I want to play as long as I can, and I have ambitions to coach or be a commentator or start an academy. India is a growing market for football and I feel it is my own country, as much as Australia is. And I really want to give back.”

In his adventures, Paartalu has made more than a few friends, and along the way, he believes that knowing and helping some of them has had a greater impact on his life than on theirs.

“The people here are very polite and most of them speak English, which helps a lot, because I can interact with them. There are so many people we’ve come across who’ve really changed Amy and me. The rickshaw driver who takes me home from training is one of them. His son Nikhil came along once, and he plays football too. I got them tickets for the match against ATK, and I scored the winner in that game. I genuinely believe that wasn’t coincidence. Another person who’s really touched us is Kumar, who sells us tender coconuts. We see him every other day and our conversations aren’t extensive, but his impact on our life is greater than ours on his. Even though we try and slip him some extra money, he always ends up giving us more coconuts!”

While the hard-work and dedication that goes into the Blues being top of the table has been spoken of, Paartalu believes that a real bond between the players, the management and the staff has the club competing on all fronts, as one. “I have never felt this way for a group of players before. I have so much respect for them and the staff too, because we’re getting closer as a unit with each passing day. Sometimes it looks very simple on the outside, but there is so much going on behind the scenes and that’s down to Carles, Gerry (Gerard), Mikel, Javi, Senen and the management. Sometimes having a good coach isn’t enough, you need to make the team feel like that they have a good relationship with every single person on the staff.”

He’s come a long way from being the Aussie who landed at Kempegowda Airport a year and a half ago, and just before he drops the mic, Paartalu tells us why he’s felt more at home here than any other country he’s travelled to.

“Before I came to Bengaluru, I’d spoken to Kunaal over the phone and back then he was just the ‘media guy’ at the club. On our first day, he was nice enough to take Amy and me out for dinner. We were out quite late, even though he had to head to office the next morning. He’s so much more than just a ‘media guy’ now. Alwin, the team analyst, often picks me up on his way to training. He thinks I don’t know it, but even when he’s not asked to be there, he comes by just to pick me up. Rosewall, the team manager, is our first point of contact for everything and he’s always available. It’s little things like these, from every person at the club, that make me feel at home. I feel like I have a family here, and that makes me want to be more involved with things outside the pitch too. There have been very few places where I’ve had a smile on my face every day, and Bengaluru is one of them.”