Ishfaq, the left half of Mohun Bagan, is most probably the fastest footballer in India. He was a striker initially in his career. From last year IFA Shield, he has adapted nicely in the left half position and often causes panic to opponent defence by his run down the left flank. He is hopeful that Mohun Bagan will become I league Champions this year. Read the interview.
Question: Congrats Ishfaq on winning the Federation Cup and also the 10th consecutive win in I-league.
Ishfaq: Thanks a lot. Yes till now we have won 2 tournaments this year and I sincerely hope we make it 3 by winning the I league.
Question: What is your daily routine and what do you do in your leisure time?
Ishfaq: My day starts with prayer basically. I am a religious person. Then if there is practice, I go directly to the ground. A bulk of my leisure time is spent playing computer games, either football or some other games. I also do a lot of net surfing. In weekends, we watch English Premier League matches.
Question: How do you assess your performance this year?
Ishfaq: I am more or less happy with my performance. I think last year I also played okay but I got less chance. This year thanks to coach Karim, I have got much more chance and I have settled myself in left half position. Actually not only me, I think the whole team has got that confidence level from our coach. Our coach holds the team together very nicely. It is really not easy to control a team which has so many superstars. Another factor which I think is important for Karim is his age, he is only in his 40s.
Question: Last season you played mostly as a striker but Carlos used you in left half from IFA Shield onwards. Now, which position would you prefer to play?
Ishfaq: Right now, I would like to play in half only. I get more space to win the ball and also I can run with the ball. Also now it gives me a pleasure to create goal scoring chances for Baichung and Barreto. Of course, if coach wants to use me in striker position, I would be happy to oblige, final decision will be taken by him in the best interest of the team.
Question: What are your roles when you play in 4-3-3 and 4-4-2? Are the roles different?
Ishfaq: Our coach till now has used two strategies 4-3-3 and 4-4-2. When we play three half as in 4-3-3, I have to hold the whole left side and I am not allowed to go up much, mainly playing in the midfield. In 4-4-2, I have to go forward often to help the strikers. I am okay with both formations. I think my fitness level is good right now, thanks to the coach and I can fall back to help my defence as well.
Question: In 4-4-2, you are saying you are supposed to go up more often, but aren’t you supposed to fall back also and help the defence?
Ishfaq: It depends. If there are two players in our opponent team who mostly attacks from our left side, then I will have to fall back and help defence i.e. if Deepak is getting two players to defend, then I will have to help him definitely by going back.
Question: So in a way it depends on the opposition team’s strategy?
Ishfaq: Yes, but I personally mostly believe in offense. Once you are offensive, you know it keeps their defence at bay, their wingbacks don’t have the chance to come up much.
Question: Can you give any instance?
Ishfaq: Like I remember the game against Dempo, the away match in Goa, that was one of my best games, we played with 10 men. You have seen Barreto playing well but that match he was outstanding, I think that match is very special for him and also for the whole team. We played brilliant football. With 10 men, we had better ball possession than Dempo. The match was the turning point of this year’s I league. For Dempo, Anthony Perreira and Valerian were attacking from our left side. We nicely blocked them and did not allow them to play their natural game. This was one of the best matches of Mohun Bagan this year. With one man less, we worked very hard and we played much better football.
Question: So out of the two formations 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, which one you personally prefer?
Ishfaq: I love both, 4-3-3 takes a lot out of you, but I get more space, more duties to perform though all depends on coach. I can play in all formations. I have played 3-5-2 for the national team as well but 4-4-2 is better than this, it is more compact. I personally prefer 4-3-3 as the role is slightly more challenging to me.
Question: Sometimes it is seen that you change flanks during the match? Do you do this on the coach’s instruction?
Ishfaq: Yes, the coach instructs us about this. Like in Air India match, James and myself changed flanks which resulted in the 1st goal by Barreto.
Question: We think that you are the fastest runner in the football field in India.
Ishfaq: (laughing) With the ball, I somehow automatically start running when I get the ball, it comes naturally to me, it is a kind of God’s gift and what happens when I run at pace, it helps to create space for my strikers and my midfield as well. I get more power with the ball. I think the coach also appreciates my speed. However, I am a little bit slow without the ball, that is what I have to improve upon. I do run off ball but not as fast as I do with the ball.
Question: Previously you were in the striker position, so how did you develop the tackling and snatching part?
Ishfaq: Yes, previously I did not need to come back to help the defence as I was a striker but after I started playing as a half, I had to develop this part. I must tell you that it is all because of the coach, he developed my defensive part a lot. I loved to fight for the ball from beginning only, that was my action but tackling, falling back, helping defence, all these defensive qualities may be were within me but the coach got it out. It would be better to say that coach Karim has harnessed it.
Question: Ishfaq, we have seen many times that instead of crossing the ball, you tend to cut in and then may be give a pass or take a shot? Why is it so?
Ishfaq: I prefer this style of play. I am basically a right footer. I love to cross with right foot but I love to take shots with both left and right foot. Yes, I usually cross the ball less and cut in more because I get more options. I take a look and then I can take a shot, cross the ball or play one touch pass with another player and get close to the goal to score. That is actually my strength. I feel I can do it better rather than crossing the ball but it is not that I don’t cross the ball, I also do that. Actually, I think that to help Baichung and Barreto or any other striker, I feel that I would be able to help them better if I go in.
In the match against Air India, which we played in Mumbai, the 2nd goal, you can see, I made a down the middle run and gave a pass to Barreto. Baichung also made a brilliant dummy run and took 2 players with him.
In International football, you will see players like Ronaldinho, Henry, Ronaldo, they all play in left side but they are mostly right footed and usually they also cut in more than crossing the ball as cutting in gives more options.
Question: Since you are saying you are right footed, do you prefer right half more than left half?
Ishfaq: Actually I can play in any position that the coach will put me in, but I prefer left half a bit more than right half as being a right footed player, it gives me advantage when I cut in from left to take a shot with my left or right foot.
Question: Have any of your family members played football?
Ishfaq: Nobody in my family played football other than my grandfather who has played some football. In fact, there are no professional footballers in my family.
Question: Are you a relative of Mehrajuddin?
Ishfaq: No, I am not.
Question: Say something about the initial days of your career?
Ishfaq: Initially I was a cricket player in Srinagar. Football is more popular, people love football. In spite of all the problems, they have not stopped organizing football tournaments, it is what people love over there and is popular among all generations. I played a lot of official tournaments for J&K cricket association. In fact, I was registered as a player there. However, football was my first love. Football is the only sports where we get jobs in Kashmir. Slowly I started playing both cricket and football simultaneously. I got an offer in JK bank but I was under age at that time, I was 17. We can’t join government office unless we are 18. My first coach in football was Satpal Singh, he was a good coach, quite a young guy, we won state league for YMCA and I became top scorer. I was awarded best player in 1999, I was playing as a striker. Then we went to play an Under-21 tournament for Jammu and Kashmir in Bangalore in 2003. We won zonal wise, I got best player over there. Then I was adjudged player of the tournament in All India level too. We met West Bengal, Goa and I scored in all games. Ashim Biswas played in that tournament for Bengal, he was playing for national team at that team. We reached the semi final and we lost to Goa. I was held back, the organizers told me I have to stay here because I have been chosen as player of the tournament. That was the moment I really cherish. After that all professional claims came in my life. That tournament helped me in my football career a lot. In 2003, I went to HAL, I scored 7 goals in National League. I scored against major teams like East Bengal, Churchill, ITI, Dempo.
Question: What was the score against Mohun Bagan?
Ishfaq: Against MB we lost 1-0, George Ekka scored most probably.
Ishfaq: East Bengal was champion that year. The Indian coach Stephen called me for the national camp, preolympics and on my debut I scored for India against Turkmenistan, 1-0, the match was in Goa. Since it was the preolympics, it was basically an under 23 team with 2 seniors. After that, I also joined many Indian camps in 2004-05, senior camps as well. I was selected for one game in Indian senior team, but did not get chance, that was the World Cup qualifying match against Singapur. I was in Dempo then, my performance was okay there and the coach liked me. I stayed for three years in Dempo from 2004 to 2006. I was in the first team for first two years. In 2006, I did not play much due to injury in my knee. During my stay in Dempo, they won 2 national leagues, 1 Durand Cup and 1 Federation Cup.
Question: Were you playing as striker or half in Dempo?
Ishfaq: In dempo I played right half as well as striker. Till the Durand Cup, I was playing as striker continuously, I scored against JCT. I was in the first team but after Durand, they brought Beto and he played as striker, i was sidelined. Somehow we lost the first match against HAL in Fed cup and Dempo was out. The coach then changed his strategy, he put Beto in midfield and and paired me with Ranty in the striker position, then we played well and we won the I league, that season I scored 6-7 goals for Dempo. I got injured after that when we became champions.
Question: How did the Mohun Bagan offer come to you?
Ishfaq: When we became champion, I was in bed, and I did not play much. That year we won the national league also. I was offered a contract from Dempo for next year but I had not signed it till then and suddenly out of the blue came a call from Debasish Dutta. I was very much surprised. I had a Mohun Bagan offer before also, but I had heard stories of Kolkata clubs not paying in time and stories about poor management, so I was thinking about the offer. Then I realized that may be God is giving me this opportunity to show my talent, to play in Kolkata and I accepted the offer. After I got a call from Debasish Dutta, in 5 minutes we finalized everything. After two days, I flew separately to Delhi, Mohun Bagan was coming to play against Dempo in Super Cup, I met Anjan Da, Debasish Da, I signed the contract over there. Same day, I took the return flight to Goa. I had a two year contract of Dempo that was getting over that year. Then I signed 1 year contract for Mohun Bagan and this year also I have signed the same 1 year contract.
Quesion: Before coming to Mohun Bagan, you heard stories about management, what is your view now?
Ishfaq: I can tell you one thing, right now, the way Mohun Bagan is performing, one important reason is the officials, they are really doing a great job. This is one of the reason why the team has performed so well. If you ask me personally, I had no problem at all with club for last two years. The officials are all the time supportive when we were down, when we performed badly in the initial stage, they said "we are there, no problem." Even during those days, we got our salary on time. The Officials always stood behind the players even during the bad times, this is fantastic, this is what is needed.
Question: What is the basic difference between Goa and Kolkata?
Ishfaq: Well, there is lot of difference. I tell you very frankly, I have enjoyed every bit in kolkata, it does not matter about the fans getting angry or anything, they have a right to get angry, they have lot of expectations from us, they love you so much and they cheer you all the time when you come in field. There are amazing moments of my life in Kolkata. When we played against Bayern Munich, I saw the stadium packed, believe me I was surprised, because I have never seen crowd like that. All Mohun Bagan supporters filling up the huge stadium, I was really surprised and very happy. It gave me encouragement to play well that day. Players always want big support from the crowd to cheer them up. It is not many times this happened in Kolkata. Because of Mohun Bagan, I got to play in front of Kahn against Bayern Munich, against Santos and also in front of Maradona, these were all big dreams coming true for me. Right now, i just pray that we can win the I league and end this season on a perfect note.
Question: Bayern and Santos coaches both said after the match that the best player of Mohun Bagan was Ishfaq.
Ishfaq: That was very generous on their part. I try to do my job nicely which the coach assigns to me.
Question: You have any plans for playing in a club outside India?
Ishfaq: Players need to dream big. If we don’t dream, we will not be able to reach high levels . I am very much sure that I can play much better than this. I will have to improve on certain aspects of my game. Right now, my only wish is that I will have to win this I-league. I think this will be one of the best years in the history of Mohun Bagan if we win I league, I really want to be part of that. All the players and coach are concentrating on this I league. About going abroad, I will definitely try to go out of India. I would want to tell myself later that at least I tried for something big.
Question: You want to give trial on your own or you will wait for offers?
Ishfaq: I will have to send my CVs first. There is a proper method. If things will work, then i will definitely go in trial, I wish to go to some Eurpean countries.
Question: Do you think standard of I league has improved because of foreigners?
Ishfaq: Yes, it helps a lot. Some people say that, Indian people do not get chance that much but if you have good quality foreigners like Barreto, other players will learn from him a lot and standard of football is bound to improve. Edu of JCT and Julius of JCT who has represented national team of Nigeria will by their presence improve standard of football in India. Julius was member of World Cup squad of Nigeria. These players certainly help to raise standard of Indian football. I have learnt a lot from Barreto, Beto and Ranty. Regarding Barreto, I can say that, he is always there to help us and guide us. Barreto has played in many major leagues of Asia. Talking about foreigners, I would like to give example of our coach Karim, his method, outlook is different. My life, my footballing the way I see, Karim has brought in new ideas. I think Karim is technically very strong, believes in strategy and technique of play and holding the team. Because of him, we have such a good team spirit. This is another reason why the team is performing well, the team is thinking as a unit. If India wants to start professional league, good quality coaches and good quality foreigners along with good Indian players are must.
Question: You had played under Indian coaches also? What is the difference?
Ishfaq: There are lots of difference, not that Indian coaches are not good, there are good quality Indian coaches but foreign coaches bring new ideas, latest strategies. I have talked about Kareem, another example is Indian team coach, Bob houghton. See how the Indian team is performing right now. many players are not performing well for club but performing so well for the country, credit should be given to Houghton for this.
Question: What are the differences between supporters of Goa and Kolkata?
Ishfaq: In Kolkata, people love football, we don’t have to play in front of empty stands like I did for other clubs, here in local league also the ground is packed with supporters. This gives a player a lot of moral boost.
Question: Do you feel in Kolkata there is lot of media pressure and also pressure from supporters?
Ishfaq: Yes, that is true, but if you have to be a good player, you have to manage all this. I know there are lot of critics. I thought in the match against Sporting de Goa, I played well but press wrote otherwise. As long as I am satisfied and my coach is satisfied, I am happy.
Question: You read newspapers? Do you get affected by criticism?
Ishfaq: I read papers. No, I don’t get affected. I see it this way. If a new player will come, media won’t write much about him. The paper writes critics only about star players. If they are writing anything against me, I am happy that I least they have expectation from me (laughing), that means there is something positive in me, otherwise they will not criticize me.
I will give more importance to what the coach says regarding my performance than what is written in a newspaper. I ask the coach if I have made any mistake. Our coach is always there for all players, he always welcomes us to share something. He points out mistakes separately, not always in front of everybody. Yes, in practice, if we do something wrong, he will say there but otherwise separately he says "these things I want you to improve."
Question: Do senior players guide you? During match, you talk amongst each other?
Ishfaq: Barreto, baichung, Marcos, deepak always guides. Deepak is one guy who will appreciate you always. We many times point each others mistakes during match and even some times we say lot of bad words to each other (laughs) but it is only till ground, after match we don’t remember all this, such is our team spirit. that is how the team works.
Question: Which is your favorite goal in your career?
Ishfaq: My Indian team debut goal against Turkmenistan in a preolympic match is a very special one for me and also one of the best goals of my life, it was a long ranger left footed shot from about 30 yards out. I also cherish the goal against Santos in IFA Shield last year a lot. In last year’s Santosh Trophy, I scored a goal by head from top of the box.
Question: We don’t find lot of Kashmiri youth being part of the mainstream football, right now it is only you and Mehrajuddin. Any plan to promote J&K football?
Ishfaq: I definitely have plans. New Chief Minister of Kashmir is quite young, he is a sports lover as well. I and mehraj have plans to meet him. It will be of benefit if Kashmir get a small professional club over there. I will try my best to promote football in my state.
Question: Is there lack of quality Bengali strikers?
Ishfaq: Actually there is dearth of strikers in all states. There are no good strikers coming up after Baichung and Sunil. Among Bengali strikers, Gauranga of Chirag is talented.
Question: If you get good payment, would you like to stay in Mohun Bagan next year?
Ishfaq: My contract ends this season. I have not decided as yet, but in my childhood I have learnt one thing, when you seed a plant, you can keep it bare and water it and it can grow over the years at one place. If you remove it and put in some other place, it will not growthat much.
Question: That means you want to stay in Mohun Bagan?
Ishfaq: (Laughing) Actually it is always better to retain same team. Usually in Kolkata, the trend is to make changes in team. You can see the example of Dempo, they are performing well, even reached semi finals of AFC cup, this they did by keeping same team for years. Mohun Bagan has also started more or less the same thing from last year. Multi year contract is important. Every player takes time to settle, one year is not always sufficient time for a player to adapt to the club and start performing. About next year, I will decide later on but right now my main aim is to anyhow make sure that Mohun Bagan win the I league.
Question: So you prefer multiyear contract?
Ishfaq: There are both sides to multiyear contract. There should be one side that if player is not happy, he can leave. Team should be able to sell player like they do in outside countries. I don’t know in future if that will take place or not but hope it will be as Indian football is becoming more professional. I think When things between coach and player do not work out, it is better to sell off the player. FPA is working towards that. I am also a member of FPA. We are planning to launch website of FPA, which Baichung and me already attended in Mumbai who are making that website. A professional organization will create the website. They have made website for ICL also.
Question: What are your goals for future?
Ishfaq: My first most important goal right now is to win I league, we really want badly to win this I league, and then I may try outside India because after 10 years I want to tell myself, okay at least I tried to play outside. My first choice is Europe. I will play there where I will have new challenge, where I feel I will have to improve more to match them, where this will help me in future but I will decide on this after I league.
Question: In how many years do you think will India be reckoned as one of the top teams in Asia?
Ishfaq: It all depends on money. I am not talking about payment for players only but good sponsors are required. Quality is more or less there. See Japan, after Professional league started, they got good sponsors and see where they have reached now. Money is required to change the infrastructure, making new academies etc. eg. condition of grounds, when somebody gives u good pass, the ball bounces and becomes a bad pass. This hampers performance. Good stadiums are required with good grounds. In Malaysian football, clubs have separate stadium, separate shop etc. Contrary to that see stadiums like Cooperage, the worst ground of India. I hate to play there. It takes everything from us. Ask Barreto, ask Baichung, they will give the same answer. After a match in Cooperage, we get the feeling as if we just played for 270 minutes, ground is too hard. Air India sometimes plays well there as they mainly rely on long passes and it becomes easy for their defenders to clear the ball.
Question: Which ground is the best in Kolkata?
Ishfaq: Barasat is very good, very soft, our mb ground is also well maintained. We could have played in our home ground itself but I think because opposition dressing room is not there, may be that is one of the reasons match is not being held here.
Question: Say something about your family.
Ishfaq: In Srinagar, my mother and father lives. I have one brother and one sister, brother is working in bangalore and sister got married.
Question: Any plans of marrige in near future?
Ishfaq: Not now, I want to concentrate on my career now.
Question: Did you expect to get a call from Indian camp?
Ishfaq: Yes, I am a bit disappointed. Judging by my performance, I feel I should have got a call. It does not matter whether i would have been playing for the national team or not, but I think I could have been called for the camp. This was one disappointment which I had but may be I did not fit this time into coach Houghton’s strategy, the way he wants to make his team. I have full faith in his ability, he is a great coach. May be my performance was not enough to satisfy him.
Question: Who is your ideal player in india?
Ishfaq: I really appreciate Baichung and Barreto right now. Barreto is always there to help, give advice, point out mistakes, to guide properly. Baichung is a player whom I look up to, we should all learn how professional a player can be, how he has managed everything, there is no indian player who can be made ideal better than Baichung. The heights he has reached is amazing, all credit goes to him. We all have so much to learn from him.
Question: We heard you always share same room with Baichung?
Ishfaq: Yes, I have good rapport with Baichung. Usually we stay in same room whenever we have match outside Kolkata. Somehow he likes my company, same goes for me also. As I said lots and lots to learn from him, he is absolutely fantastic.
Question: Your ideal player outside india?
Ishfaq: My favorite player keeps changing (laughing). I am supporter of Arsenal. I like Fabregas a lot. I like Zidane also. Zidane and Fabregas have some similarity, game looks so easy when ball is around them, they always have that power to think quickly than other players and make decisions quickly. Football does not look complicated at all when they play. They have always fraction of second more than opponent to think and they utilize that only. It is fantastic. I was lucky enough to hear Zidane’s personal interview on BBC. I don’t know how they improve their vision and get that extra time to take decisions, somehow it is faster than opponent. I think some people have that talent and of course practice makes it perfect. You see Barreto, somehow they have more time than we do. I really don’t know how they do this.
Question: Any comments on standard of referring?
Ishfaq: That is one thing I think needs desperate improvement for Indian football to improve. We should not always look only on footballers to improve, refereeing should improve as well. There are not enough quality referees in India. It is not that they make mistakes purposefully but quite a few of them fail to give correct decisions because of lack of quality. There are some referees who are very good. In the match against Sporting de Goa, Baichung was given offside in first half where he was not offside, Barreto was but when Baichung received the ball, Barreto was not interfering with the ball and so the decision was not correct.
Question: Do you think if past players become referee will that help?
Ishfaq: Not exactly that. I think we need well educated people coming up to take that profession with good football knowledge.
Question: How much do you think education is required to be a good sportsman?
Ishfaq: Believe me, eduation is extremely important. It helps to deal with foreign coach, it helps you in other things like understand football, read the law, read good journals, interaction with foreign players etc. Also a player can educate himself regarding football, to keep himself updated with what is happening in developing nations etc. It helps to read good books on football. I read a lot of books. I love to gather knowledge about everything. I am a little religious, so I read religious books a lot.
Question: Do you think standard of living is an important factor in performance?
Ishfaq: Yes, it is very important. Improving standard of living for footballer is very important like staying in a good place, eating better foods, taking care of yourself, all of which improves performance. When you start from zero, you don’t eat quality foods, you have to take care of these things. Now eating good food in a good restaurant will certainly help you. Riding bike and car also helps a lot. In Kolkata, there is so much pollution. If you come in bus, you have to get freshened up and then go for the training while if you come via car, you are already mentally relaxed. Some people might find it weird, but for me it is really important and helps to stay focused and relaxed and cool headed.
Question: Say something about our own Satya da.
Ishfaq: Very good point indeed. He is one person who always helps. I have lot of respect for him. What he has played, what he has achieved, not many people can achieve that and he is always there to help and very down to earth person. If I have done something wrong during the match, he will definitely tell me about what to do, that is very important.
Question: We performed so well against Sporting de Goa but against Mohammedan our performance were not up to the mark, do you agree?
Ishfaq: Definitely Mohammedan had a great game but our performance was not that bad. We also got many chances. In fact, in first half we played quite well. We have won 10 matches in a row in I league and 3 points is the most important factor and it is not possible for a team to play well in every match. I am hopeful about a positive result in our next match against East Bengal. Actually expectation is so much high from us now that if we play slightly bad one day, then it is reported that we played very badly.
Question: What do you have to say about the Lalampuia episode?
Ishfaq: Lalampuia is an extremely good person. Every person makes mistakes. Lalam has recognized his mistake and has agreed to rectify himself. This makes him a good human being. About his performance, he is a great player, there is no issue with that.
Question: Thanks a lot Ishfaq and best of luck for the remaining matches of I league.
Ishfaq: Nice talking to you guys.
INTERVIEW: Subhojyoti Banerjee, Srijan Bhattacharya, Nirmalya Maity, Shiladitya Mitra
REPORT: Shiladitya Mitra and Rajat Subhra Banerjee.