Now, manning the trenches for the Blue army

With Bengaluru FC His Ninth Club In Ten Years, Pratik Chaudhari Is The Typical Football Journeyman. And While He Was Undecided About A Lot, The One Thing He Was Sure Of While Growing Up, Was The Need To Defend. Whether It Would Mean Marching To The Border, Or Throwing His Body On The Line On A Football Pitch Was Something He Would Figure Out Later…

“That’s the first time I’ve been asked how my name is spelt!” says Pratik Chaudhari, speaking to us over the phone from Mumbai, just moments after obligations are complete for his two-year deal with the Blues. As part of club protocol, new signings are made to confirm everything from spellings and social media handles to passport numbers and blood groups; a routine that caught the 30-year-old by surprise. 

“I’ve played professionally for almost ten years now and so many people have got my name wrong before I’ve had to correct them. There’s no H in Pratik and Chaudhari does not end with a Y!” he laughs. A journeyman in his own right, the defender joins after having played with some of India’s biggest clubs. Having started his career in Mumbai’s fourth division, Chaudhari worked his way up the ranks and spent three years playing among Mumbai’s elite footballers.

“I started out in school, joined a local team in the fourth division, we gained promotion, I took part in some trials, then joined Bank of India and then moved to Union Bank of India – those were long years, if you ask me. But if I was to go back, I’d do it all over again the exact same way,” Chaudhari says. During his time with UBI, it was a friendly against Air India that gave Chaudhari the big step up. Still only 20, it was a chance he wasn’t willing to forego.

“Air India were in the I-League when they showed interest in signing me. That’s where my journey as a professional started and I made some great memories there, winning my first title in the 2012 Durand Cup. Rahul Bheke was my teammate there, and in my final season Naushad Moosa was the coach. After two memorable years at Air India, I moved to Shillong and joined Rangdajied. That was the club’s first season in the I-League and unfortunately the only one. There were some issues with their club licensing, and I had to look for other clubs to play at the top level. That’s how Mohun Bagan happened,” recalls Chaudhari, not before remembering that another Blues’ fan-favourite in Eugeneson Lyngdoh shared the dressing room with him in Meghalaya.

It’s only a matter of time before we get the confessions flowing. While some would call it an occupational hazard (sitting on the other side of an interview) to have to ask the tough questions, it only helped us that in Chaudhari, we were in conversation with a man who took on challenges with a smile. 

“I genuinely had no Plan B. When Rangdajied were not allowed to play in the I-League I was so far into playing football that I wanted my career to develop further. Growing up, I was so focused on becoming a footballer that I didn’t really think of any alternate career options. But, I did think about what I’d do if I failed and the answer was the Army. If I hadn’t become a footballer, then I would’ve definitely been in the Army.” 

During his time with Mohun Bagan, Chaudhari picked up his first and so far only top-division League title in the 2014-15 I-League; a night he remembers with great fondness, despite having to watch his teammates lift the trophy on TV from Kolkata. “I remember that night so well. Bagan is a club with such a rich history and the squad we had that season was so good. We had some really good Indian players and foreigners and opportunities were far and few in between for me, but I learned so much during my time there.”

Bello Rasaq’s 87th minute equalizer had allowed Bagan to keep their lead at the top of the table and stop the then Ashley Westwood-coached side from picking up their second title in as many seasons, yet Chaudhari says he learned much about his opposition that night. “Bengaluru were never an easy opponent. They made us go all the way in 2014-15 and then they were so upset. Some of us couldn’t believe what we were seeing! I won the I-League that year and waited a few more years before I was in a competitive title-winning match with Kerala Blasters, but at BFC every match is faced with a kind of ‘championship mentality’. In only their second season, they had set their standards so high. It became evident then that this team wants to win every year, and that’s one of the major reasons I’ve made this switch.’

Chaudhari’s time at Mohun Bagan was followed by stints with his hometown club Mumbai FC that sandwiched his first ISL experience with the Blasters. From one cauldron to the other, Pratik says that soon enough the Cooperage and the Salt Lake felt the same. “Playing for my hometown club was always my dream and getting the opportunity to play for Mumbai FC was amazing. Mahindra had shut down by the time I turned pro, but they were considered among the top clubs in the country – very professional in their ways. I feel joining BFC kind of gives me a second chance at that. Moving to Kerala in between had also meant that I had played in front of some of the loudest crowds in the country. I’ll be honest in saying that initially I felt the pressure because of the fans. But that went away after the experiences of playing alongside players like Aaron (Hughes) and Cedric (Hengbart).” 

Home is the place where Chaudhari recalls the best of his memories and after turning out for Delhi Dynamos and Jamshedpur FC in the Indian Super League, the defender packed his bags once again to return to the Island city, this time to join Mumbai City FC. “I cannot tell you how much it meant to play for teams in Mumbai. It is not that being away has ever upset me too much, but playing in front of the people you grew up with is something special. Now I’m at a stage in my career where, just like Bengaluru FC, I am very hungry for success and silverware and I hope to make that come true.”

Now into his tenth season in the top division, Chaudhari wants to make the most of what comes his way in the future. “All these years spent in the League have helped me gain the experience to develop as a professional. I think joining Bengaluru FC is the biggest challenge because you have so many good players in every position here, and I’m ready for that. I hope to be able to help the team achieve its goals together, and that is to become Champions again.”

He’s far from his new teammates and has not got his hands on a BFC shirt just yet, but the Blues’ new number four says he’s looking forward to joining the squad for pre-season and meeting the club’s ever faithful West Block Blues. “The times that I have seen them support the team, I have always had the feeling that this is how supporters should be. They represent a section of football fans who are passionate not just for the team, but for every player. The West Block Blues are not only willing to support their team until the very end, but are also ready to praise and applaud an away side that does well. This makes them very special. I can’t wait to meet them, my teammates, and club staff and get going for next season. As a team, I want us to be able to try and give these fans more reasons to celebrate.”