‘My father always did the dreaming for me’

After Picking Up His Bengaluru FC B Player Of The Year Award, We Caught Up With Leon Augustine Who Spoke At Length About What’s Been A Rollercoaster Journey So Far…

When 32-year-old Asokan M. had his second child, the midfielder had already played several levels of district football and had even been called up for Kerala’s Santosh Trophy camp. Seven years later, his son Leon had started to kick a ball as well. It’s only a small part of the phone call that eventually gives us the rest of this interview, but it is our interaction with the former Kerala Roadways and Kerala Transport Corporation midfielder that gives us the moment that lays the foundation for it.

“Leon was very young and I had reached the end of my career when he told me that he wanted to come and watch me in training. When he was in the third standard, a few years later, he got selected to be a part of a football program called SEPT, here in Kozhikode. That’s when I realised that my time was up. To know that he had grown a fondness for the sport was the first step, the second was for me to move aside and hope that he would get the many things that I couldn’t get for myself,” Asokan says before handing the phone to his son. The 54-year-old did the same with his dreams a decade and a half ago.

“It’s true that I started playing very young, but I hadn’t given professional football a thought until I joined BFC at the U18 level four years ago. My biggest motivation has been my father. He works at the Parcel Office for Kerala Roadways, a job that he got through football. He was a very good player from what people have told me, but he couldn’t really pursue a career in sport because he had commitments to his family. He bagged most of his fame from playing sevens football, where he made enough money to help my grandparents get both his sisters married. It helped us get by as a family, and only he knows how much he sacrificed for us.”

But even though it was the shorter and smaller format of the game that got Asokan all the fame and friends he needed, he was against his son doing the same. As young Leon would find out, the dreams his father had for him were bigger than his own. “My father was against me playing sevens football because he didn’t see any future for me there. He wanted me to aim bigger and better, and he urged me to play proper eleven-a-side football. When I went out to play with my friends, they introduced me as ‘Asokan’s son’ and that made me feel very proud. I told him about this, and I’m sure it made him happy then. He once said that he hopes to be introduced as Leon’s father one day, and convinced me that elevens football was the way. That was the biggest motivation for me, growing up. I had to make a name for myself because that’s what my father wanted.”

Leon made the trip to Spain for pre-season with the Blues ahead of their first campaign in the Indian Super League and also featured in an AFC Cup match later that year. But it was a stroke of luck that even brought him to the club. Leon confesses he had almost missed the deadline to apply for his trials with BFC. “I remember I found out about the trials with 90 minutes to the deadline. I ran to the internet parlour, took a print out of the form and then ran my way to the Football Association office. To be honest I reached just in time, but they had shut and I was told to try again next year. As I was leaving, I ran into my coach from school, Salam sir, and he said he’ll try to help me. He managed to pull some strings at the Association and got me on the list. I think I might have been the last person to have my name registered. There were a thousand children waiting outside to try their luck the next day but I wasn’t one of them and I owe it to Salam sir,” Leon remembers with a smile.

Having joined the club in December 2016 after two rounds of rigorous trials, Leon was part of the club’s first ever U18 squad, and made the trip to Bellary to be a part of the residential setup at the IIS. In his own admission, it was a time that added to his resolve to be better. “My time in Bellary changed me a lot, because it gave me the opportunity to concentrate on football. We’re given everything there. To be honest, I look back and think of how much that place asked me whether I really wanted to become a footballer. When your standards of living change, you begin to take for granted the reason it has changed. Suddenly, there were AC rooms with comfortable beds, healthy food on the table and world class football pitches. It was the realisation that I’ve been given so much for my ability of being able to kick a ball well, that made me want to kick it even better.”

Leon says that he is blessed to be at a club where the Head Coach is on time for kick-off at every youth team game. “As a young footballer, there is no bigger motivation than being told that a coach or a scout is watching you. When I joined the BFC U18s, we often came to Bangalore to play our League games and I was always so happy to see the head coaches sitting on the gallery to watch us. It was Albert Roca first, and now it’s Carles Cuadrat. That’s how my dream to make it to the senior team began, and I’ll never forget Roca because he is the coach who gave me my first ever senior team debut.”

But as high as the highs were, the lows were even lower. Ahead of the following season, Leon found himself pegged back in the pecking order and out of favour for the senior team. “I was very upset when I was sent from the senior team to the reserve squad, and I wasn’t registered for the ISL the following year. I spoke to my parents a lot when I was feeling low, and they would always try to cheer me up and motivate me. I knew I wasn’t playing very well, but I had to pick myself up. At the beginning of this season, I had set myself a target that I wanted to play in the ISL, but if you had asked me just three months ago if I was on course, I’d have been in tears just trying to answer.”

After his six goals and three assists in the BDFA Super Division League, a first team call up seemed a possibility for Leon before everything came crashing down. “I pulled my hamstring quite badly in the BDFA Super Division League and I was asked to rest for four weeks. I did the math and it meant that I would only recover for the final match of the ISL League stage and that was that. I had pretty much put the lid on my ISL dreams for another season. It had been a really tough campaign for me, to sit in the apartments and watch some of my teammates make the trip to Bhutan for the AFC Cup match and even get minutes on the pitch. I was happy for them, of course, but it was something that I had yearned for myself.”

Soon after returning to fitness, Leon received a call from the first team, where Carles Cuadrat wanted extra legs in training. “Just a few days after my rehab ended, Carles asked me to come and train for the final sessions and I was unbelievably happy. Anything more would have been a bonus. I hadn’t expected that at all, and then the boss went and put my name on the starting eleven too. It was only a month or so ago, but talking about it makes me want to relive that moment once again. When I went out onto the pitch, I played for my family and for every single coach who has pushed me forward.”

Leon won himself the Emerging Player award after his assist for Kevaughn Frater’s strike that night, and even though he’s come a long way from being the youngster who played school football in muddy Calicut grounds, the 21-year-old is quick to credit everyone who’s helped him along the way. “I had so many great coaches in school, Anil Kumar, Balakrishnan, Deepak CM, Niyas Rahman and Wahid Sali. You won’t find pictures of them on the internet, but these are just some of the people who are constantly trying to bring the glory days back to football in Calicut. When I moved to BFC, I was given more professional training under coaches like John Kenneth, John Kila and Naushad Moosa, this helped me take my football to the next level.”

Much like his father, Leon dreams big for himself. Asked where he sees himself in half a decade, the winger is quick with his answer. “My immediate goal is to cement a place in the senior team somehow. But my father has made it clear that in five years he wants me to have played for the national team. He always did the dreaming for me, so that’s my big dream now. I know for a fact that this club gives me the best chance to do that, and if I work hard I’m confident of getting there. The effort I put towards that will only benefit this club because it has given me so much more than I could have asked for.”