Kotal: Decided to start an academy to help underprivileged youngsters

Pritam Kotal has come a long way since his days as a youngster looking to make a career in football. A two-time Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) champion with ATK FC, Kotal recalled his days as a youngster in West Bengal’s Uttarpara amongst other things in a chat with host Anant Tyagi during the latest episode of Let’s Football Live on Thursday.

“My uncle used to play football and my father also used to take players for tournaments. So, I have grown up in a football background only. My uncle and my dad both wanted me to enter football. There was a ground near my house, I started from there only. I started taking football seriously after 10th grade. In my locality in Uttarpara, there is a camp where I started my football. I started there and now I have come so far and there is a lot more to go for me,” Kotal said while discussing his football initiation.

Kotal’s father, in fact, has been a huge influence on his career and is one of his role models. “When I was young, I used to idolize my father. He has worked very hard for me. I did not even have the money to buy one pair of boots. My father has worked hard to provide me with everything. I am (also) a big fan of Deepak Mondal. I used to follow his game when he was in the national team. He played in the Asian Games and the Asian Cup. He has played in Mohun Bagan and United Sports. But my father is my motivation.”

Academy in Uttarpara

Coming from a background of limited means, Kotal knows what it’s like to not have much and has been doing his best to give back to those around him. “We have set up a gym near my academy ground. Near my area there are a lot of people interested in sports but cannot afford to pursue their passion. So, I have a small gym in my house, which has everything for a sportsman. They take the key from my mother and use it as per their convenience,” he said.

“During the lockdown it was closed but now we are slowly opening it… I feel bad that I have come so far and I might not be able to do something for them, for my younger brothers because when I started out, I also used to take a lot of help. That is why I help as many people as I can. My parents also support this, everyone is welcome to use my gym.

“So, we spoke about this and decided to start this academy. We had an empty ground and I went to speak to the management. I did not want to talk to anyone about this because no one really knew. We played a few friendlies too. Let’s see how it works out in the future, we haven’t really taken anyone’s help till now. We run the academy out of our own pockets," Kotal added.

While elaborating further on his academy, Kotal said, “This academy has been on my mind for a while but to run an academy we need a lot of things. So, a few of us players who practice together like Mumbai City FC’s Sourav Das, Rana Gharami and even Narayan Das. We decided to start our own academy because there are many people who do not get proper practice.”

Hero ISL’s transformative effect on Indian football

The Indian defender then hailed the Hero ISL’s impact on Indian football and credited it for improving him as a player. “The atmosphere of the dressing room (in the Hero ISL) was different. We had David Trezeguet, Bruno Cirillo. Seeing all these players was like a dream for me, having seen them only on TV. When the ISL auction happened, I was a little nervous as to which team I will join. But after joining the team and seeing the big names like even Kostas Katsouranis, Greece captain. I improved a lot with these players in the dressing room,” Kotal said.

‘Sharing a dressing room with these guys is a different feeling altogether. How they prepare for the match and after the match, the practice, it was all different. The first season was a very different experience because all the players were supportive. They shared their different experiences as well,” he added.

Apart from ATK, Kotal has also represented FC Pune City and Delhi Dynamos FC in the Hero ISL. While reminiscing about his return to ATK from Delhi, Kotal expressed his gratitude to the management and owner of his former club from the national capital.

“So, when I started in Delhi, the team was not in a very good position. I got a call from Kolkata, but I was in two minds because as a captain, I did not want to leave the club in a bad state. I wanted to play the full season and then join ATK. But the clubs spoke amongst each other and left the decision to me. And because of a few personal family reasons, I came back to Kolkata,” he said.

Kotal continued, “Delhi gave me a lot of respect, they made me the captain. A lot of thanks to Delhi, especially (their president) Rohan Sharma. He is very passionate about the club and wants to see it shine. He uses a lot of young players and they have a great future ahead (as Odisha FC now).”

The 26-year-old also spoke glowingly when describing life under ATK head coach Antonio Lopez Habas. “When I left for Kolkata (in Hero ISL 2016), he was the coach (of FC Pune City) and he did not want me to leave. When we caught up after he joined ATK, he said we could not work together at Pune, but I want to work with you, and I will make you a better player. He told me that I will be used you as a centre-back. One good thing about him is that the intensity in practice is strong. No player is big or small for him. From Roy (Krishna) to Komal Thatal, everyone is the same,” he opined.

“So, this keeps the dynamics of the dressing room intact, which is very important for every team. I had heard that he was a hard-working coach and it was very nice working for him this year. He has only one aim – to win. Even if it is a practice match... he used to fix my mistakes and correct my positioning. The passing, the communication, because the right-back and centre-back roles are very different, and he helped me adapt,” Kotal shared.

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