Since decades Tata Football Academy has been no.1 breeding ground of future Indian football stars, but when Pritam Kotal got rejected by TFA not once but twice, he took it upon himself to go back to his local club, Uttarpara Netaji Brigade, slugged it out under the watchful eyes of coach Anup Nag and made himself a worthy option and became a reliable Indian football team defender.
In an exclusive interview with Sports India Show, he talks about his career, his vision and his place in the Indian team.
SIS: What made you choose football?
Pritam Kotal: My family was into football, so choosing football was natural. My uncle was a first division footballer. I have grown up watching my dad taking kids to play football tournaments. So, football is what I have grown up with me and it was a straightforward choice to make.
SIS: How did you get the Mohun Bagan contract in 2013?
Pritam Kotal: I remember when I used to return after playing first division matches, I passed the Mohun Bagan tent and I always felt that it would be outstanding if I could get into the club one day. I was playing for Youth Development in the 2012-13 season when I got calls from Mohun Bagan and Dempo. I spoke to my father and signed the contract with Mohun Bagan. As a kid, I always wanted to play for teams like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and India. My family members have always been Mohun Bagan supporters. Even when I was playing in ISL, my dad used to watch and support Mohun Bagan.
SIS: Mohun Bagan hadn’t won the national league/I-League over a decade and in 2014-15 Bagan won the league on the very last matchday of the tournament against fierce competitors Bengaluru FC. What were the emotions in the camp?
Pritam Kotal: In the 2014-15 season we had a talented team. We didn’t start well that season; we didn’t play well in the Federation Cup, so we knew we had to give it all in I-league. In the match against Bengaluru FC we were under tremendous pressure, BFC had to win but we had to draw the match. It’s tougher to draw a match than going for a result. The biggest positive in the team was the attitude of the players. During the half-time, everybody in the dressing room was pumped up, and I knew we would score.
SIS: Having played quite a few Kolkata derby matches in your life, do you have any special memory regarding any derby?
Pritam Kotal: My first derby match will always be close to my heart. There were over 1 lakh fans present at the stadium. Even though we lost the match, the memory of walking out of the tunnel with the crowd egging us on was very special.
SIS: Over the last 5 years Indian football has grown and the 2019 Asian Cup was a story of so near yet so far. India was just inches away from making it to the second round after 55 long years, but then the ‘Bahrain heartbreak’ happened. Did you all become over defensive thinking of a draw in that match?
Pritam Kotal: With ISL we have foreign coaches and good foreign players playing for or against us, this has enhanced our growth tremendously. Previously our attitude was to make sure we stop the opponents from scoring, now our attitude has changed. We know if we conceded two we will score two. We had an excellent start in the Asian Cup. The boys put up a brave fight against the UAE. In the last match, we knew we had to draw to qualify, hence we were trying to ensure that we don’t concede. It seemed over-defensive, but we were just being cautious.
SIS: The Stephen Constantine era ended and under Igor Stimac it seems the Indian team tries to play with a fresh approach, a more attacking one. The 2022 WC qualifiers have not gone according to plan. Are the players finding it difficult to adjust themselves in this new style of play?
Pritam Kotal: Every coach has their philosophies, ways and means. Stephen was a different coach and Stimac is different. Every coach has to be given some time to get the desired results. We barely got time to adapt to Stimac’s methods before the qualifiers. Indian football has a bright future under Stimac, just give him some time.
SIS: Talking about the style of play, this season you, for the first time played under Antonio Lopez Habas, the most successful coach in ISL history and had to play the central defender’s role instead of the fullback’s which you had been playing for most parts of your career. What adjustments did you have to bring to your game to fit in this role? Does this give you an edge over the other defenders in the race for a spot in the defence line of the national team?
Pritam Kotal: I had no idea that I would have to play as a central defender. Though players have to be ready to adapt to any role. It gives more options to the coaches. I have played as a central defender in Youth Development. When Habas told me he wanted me to play as a central defender, I took up the challenge. I started concentrating more on passing distribution and on communicating with players around me. As a central defender, guiding your players about positioning and passing is very important. The coach had immense faith in me and helped me throughout, and I would like to thank Habas for everything. I have played as a right-back and now I can fit in as a central defender also, that increases an option for Stimac and also gives me an edge. Ultimately, it is his decision.
SIS: You have won two ISL titles with ATK under two different coaches and two different squads and also won a thrilling I-League with Mohun Bagan. Which was more difficult and which is more close to your heart and why?
Pritam Kotal: My mindset is a little different. All trophies are important, but I play my football differently. When we won I-league, my next target was to win ISL. Once we won ISL, I wanted to win the Federation Cup. After the Federation Cup, the target was to win SAFF. The trophies are motivations but you can’t keep yourself limited to that, once a tournament is done you have to target the next one and put in your all in that tournament.
SIS: What is your next target then you just won the ISL?
Pritam Kotal: I want to win the AFC Cup. We have a quality team this time and we have to prove ourselves in the AFC Cup. We have a team capable of dominating the tournament and the success in AFC Cup will have a big impact in our country’s football. BFC played so well last time. This time we have to set a higher standard.