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Living the Spanish dream

Three Indian footballers created history as they were selected for CD Olimpic De Xativa, thus becoming the first Indian men to become part of Spanish football

Football in India has progressed a lot in the past few years. From being ranked 173rd in the FIFA rankings in 2015, the country now stands at 103rd in 2019. Players from all over the world are now participating in the Indian Super League.

But if we talk about Indian players playing in foreign leagues, the list is very short.  Only Sunil Chhetri (Sporting Lisbon B) and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (Stabaek FC) have played in Europe, considered to be the continent with the premier footballing culture in the world. Here too, they have played for teams in Portugal and Denmark, both considered to be lower rung countries in the European club football structure. Indian football fans have always dreamt of someone to represent the country in the premier footballing nations of Spain and England.

The dream now is set to become a reality, as on August 27 three Indian players were unveiled to be in the first team of CD Olimpic De Xativa, a Valencia based club, who plays in the third division of Spanish football. The three players — Lunkim Seigoulum Khongsai, Kabir Kohli and Kabir Nath — became the first Indian men to ever be selected in the first team of a Spanish side.

Anuj Gupta, the owner of Delhi Based I-League 2nd division club Sudeva FC, acquired the Spanish club in 2018, “to build a promising future for Indian players”. The club, which has a huge residential football complex in Civil Lines, invited five coaches from Spain, including former Real Madrid player Oscar Rubio and held trials in 15 Indian cities to select the best talent to send for training at Xativa.

From hundreds of kids aged 14-19 years old, 28 players were selected to go to Spain and train with the club, and from those youngsters, three made the mark and etched their name in Indian football history.

Nineteen-year-old Lunkim Seigoulun Khongsai (nicknamed Gogou) who plays as a centre mid-fielder, hails from a small town, Tuibong in Manipur. In 2014, Gogou moved to Delhi due to violence and economic hardship in Manipur, which threatened to stand in the way of his dream to play the sport. Belonging to a football-loving family, Gogou continued his football venture in the Capital, where he played his first league in Delhi Youth League Under-15 in 2014.

Gogou then landed in Sudeva in 2017 from where he has now embarked on an international journey with CD Olimpic de Xativa. “It’s a dream come true for me,” he says in a chat via Skype straight from Spain.

Playing since the age of 14, Kabir Kohli (19 now) discovered his passion for football at a very young age. Kohli a goalkeeper, has participated in various leagues along with national-level camps such as the BC Roy Trophy and India Under-19 team. He believes these camps have given him an opportunity to mature as a player and become a more confident goal-keeper. “An opportunity to be a part of CD Olimpic de Xativa will provide me a platform for a premier class international exposure while taking care of my academics as well,” Kohli says. Besides playing, he also wants to study Sports Science in Spain.

Kabir Nath (19) began his journey in the Brazil International Football Academy in Gurgaon. Nath has played and won various football tournaments, having set the record for the highest Scorer in FCB ESCOLA U14 Tournament (2014) and Youth League Tournament (2013).

He won silver in Royal Selengor Club International Tournament held in Malaysia. Nath was selected in India Under-17 World Cup squad in Germany, but was sidelined due to injury. But the striker fought back when all his critics and even doctors said that he would not be able to return, and now he has made history. “From the age of six, my only aim has been to become a professional footballer,” Nath says as he joins teammate Gogou from Spain.

So, how different is the training in Spain? “First of all, we had most difficulty in  learning the local language,” says Kohli. According to Nath, what he found challenging is how fast the pace of their game is and how hard they work in training. “It is far more challenging than in India,” he says.

Speaking about the Indian talent, head coach of the academy and former La Liga player Abel Buades Vendrell says that physically and  talent-wise, they are at par and sometimes superior to the home-grown Spanish players. “It is in technicality and perseverance that these boys are a little behind. This is due to the structure at the youth level in India where they do not get the proper training,” he says, adding that as the season progresses, we will see more of these players in the starting 11.

Speaking about the exposure they will get at that level, Anuj Gupta says that compared to the Indian structure, where a team plays 15-20 games a season, the Spanish third division has a total of 40 matches spanning 10 months. “The experience they will gather there will be immense, and it will help Indian football in the long run,” he adds.

“My dream is to see the first Indian player in La Liga, and this historic moment is perhaps a small step forward to this achievement,” he says.

But do they have the potential in them to play the La Liga? Coach Vendrell says that it is too early to make any sort of assumptions now. “They’ll need to train a lot, and they are so young now, but yes, given their talent, and if they persevere hard enough in this country, they have the potential to slowly rise to that level,” assures the coach, who famously scored against Real Madrid in La Liga 2006.