In fifth grade, Jay Gupta's fascination with football was ignited when he observed older students engaging in the sport. Eager to join the action, Gupta's mother attempted to enrol him in the football team, only to be told he was too young. However, determination prevailed, and soon Gupta found himself a member of the school team.

From that point forward, Gupta's football journey has been relentless. Hailing from Pune, he initially represented the youth teams of FC Pune City before honing his skills in Portugal for a substantial five-year period. Returning to India, he later headed back to Spain for a season.

Now at the age of 21, Gupta is making waves in his debut Indian Super League (ISL) season. FC Goa, currently among the three undefeated teams in the league, owes part of its success to Gupta's contributions, including a goal and an assist, as well as three clean sheets.

While Gupta spent the majority of his career as a centre-back before coming to India, he has seamlessly adapted to the full-back role under the guidance of head coach Manolo Marquez.

The FC Goa defender recently shared insights into his experiences in Portugal, playing under Marquez, his time in the ISL, and more in an exclusive interview with the indiansuperleague.com.

Here are the excerpts: 

Why did you decide to move to Portugal?

This goes back to 10th grade when I was playing for FC Pune City’s U-15 team. A lot of thought behind the decision to go abroad also comes from your parents and others. After my 10th-grade boards, the Pune City FC CEO met my parents and presented them with an opportunity for me to go abroad. It was a new tie-up that they had with this first division club in Portugal which had an elite development program. He thought that I would have the capacity to go there and nurture myself.

How big of an eye opener was it for you when you moved to Portugal?

The culture is different. Up until 5th grade, I didn't even know the sport, but for the youngsters there, that (playing and watching) started long before. When you start training as a kid, the coaches focus so much on individual training and to be able to develop you technically. Coaches would have individual sessions, working on some things that they themselves want the kid to improve, and things like these they come from culture. They're obsessed with it. That obsession is what makes the grassroots so good. They want their players from a young age to have the capability to reach the first team right away.

How did you end up becoming a defender?

I was actually a winger in school, and I used to play the role of being a goalscorer. Then when I came up to the grassroots at FC Pune City, we had a Spanish coach named Jose, and he looked at me for about a month and told me I was a centre back. Then when I started playing, I started seeing that my physical capabilities complemented what the centre-back position needs. I started liking it so much.

How did the idea of you playing as a full-back come about?

When I came to FC Goa, I did come in as a centre-back but it was really a blessing that Manolo tried me as a left back in the Durand Cup. I did show aspects that could eventually need me to become a left back. He had a word with me before playing me as a left-back and whether I have played in that position before, and I told him that I played a season in Portugal (as left-back). He wanted me to explore that position and I said yes. Being able to play as a full-back, I am able to show a lot more and I'm able to help (the team) a lot more. I'm blessed it worked out really well and let's see how it continues to go.

Are there any players you look up to in terms of your game style?

When I was training in Portugal, I used to look up to Joao Cancelo. He was playing alongside Ruben Dias (at Manchester City), who I have seen play live a lot of times in Portugal. I used to look up to both of them because I used to play at centre-back and left back. Cancelo is one of the best full-backs I’ve ever seen. Looking at him helped me understand what a full-back does and how much he can contribute not just defensively but offensively. A lot of what I do now or try to do now inculcates from what he does.

Talk us through your winner against Odisha FC. Did you intend to go for it or did it happen by chance?

When I was in Portugal, as a centre back, we used to go for a lot of corners and we used to get ample opportunities to be able to take that shot because I used to go in from the right. Sometimes the ball used to come at the edge of the box. In training, I used to train exactly this very shot - the top left corner from the right side of the box. I actually scored a goal in Portugal like this, but it was in the bottom corner. I had been looking for this exact goal for a long period of time and I've worked it on my muscle memory for a very long time. So getting that goal in injury time and that exact way that I've been looking for, I cannot explain it. It's surreal. And finally getting it as my first goal in the ISL, cherry on the top.

How did Marquez react to that? We saw you running towards him to celebrate.

I wanted to celebrate with everybody and I especially wanted to celebrate with Manolo. I ran to him and I was trying to get him all pumped up because he looked a bit nervous. I just looked at him and said, this is for you. He was trying to shoo me away. After the match, we had a big laugh about it.

Marquez is one of the most demanding coaches. Has the expectation and the responsibility that he has put on you helped you play to your potential?

Definitely. Once he felt that I could go through with it, he wanted me to be obsessed with being a left back. He wanted me to be able to make all the movements, obviously not right away because I’m not a machine. He started having individual talks, showing me analysis, showing me different positions I need to be in. He started to train my mind in every training session. 

Manolo is still helping me learn more about the full-back position. But it’s just the demand that he has, that you need to be exactly where you have to be at every single second that I am still trying to perfect. It's very difficult. But every single game, when I'm on the sidelines and playing right next to him, he (Manolo) is always talking to me and telling me to do this and that, so that it becomes muscle memory. Let's see how impressed he is with me, but I am going to keep going.

It’s your debut season in the ISL. What aspects have you found challenging?

I would say it is adjusting to the professionalism. Here you're not just playing amateur, you're playing for the points, you're playing for the win. You have people who are dedicated to watching you win.

Here, I’m trying to do the right thing every single time. If you get one foot wrong, you can concede a goal, you can be punished. I feel like those concentration levels that you need are exactly what makes you one of the best at what you do and that is what I've been finding difficult. When the intensity picks up so much and everybody is looking for that one thing every single second, you cannot turn off. You always have to be on, and I love that.

How much are you looking forward to playing for the Indian national team?

That was one of the biggest reasons why I chose to come back to India (to play for the national team). Since I was a kid, I used to follow Indian football a lot. I speak for everybody who has watched Indian football and who follows it that it is our dream to be able to get to the World Cup. And to be able to help the national team would be the biggest honour that I could get.

I keep looking forward to it every day (national team call-up), not in the sense that I deserve it but that I selflessly want to help my nation reach that dream (World Cup).

I think one of the very positive points that we've got in this sense is the youngsters working week in week out to be able to fight for a position in the national team which is such a positive point.

Would you consider a call up to the Indian team as the biggest highlight of your career?

Definitely. It's always been that Indian call up that I've been dreaming about, more than playing for any European club. I've always only wanted to play for my country and eventually help them get to that dream. I’m happy to see that we are getting there and we shall.