“I hope they win it all,” is the simple expectation from Fanai Lalremtluanga as he discusses his beloved Manchester City team decimating Real Madrid to make their way to the final of the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League. After seeing his father and brother out of the door to work at their family shoe shop, Fanai finds the chance to catch highlights of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Blues in action before taking a trip down memory lane with us from Kolasib to Kozhikode.
“My YouTube is filled with clips of Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri and Sergio Busquets, I follow their game closely and learn a lot,” says an inspired Fanai. A few years ago, though, the 18-year old was at a juncture of not even caring about these names. Consummate with the strings of a guitar and a badminton racquet, the Blues’ youngster preferred becoming a badminton player or a guitarist. But 2016 brought with it a twist in a tale that ended with Fanai taking on a whole different stage, where he made people dance to his tunes.
“I used to go and watch my brothers practice at a nearby pitch and play in local tournaments. I would go out and play with my friends at times and that was about it. It was when I got a chance to play in a local tournament and was named ‘Player of the Tournament’ that I seriously considered becoming a professional footballer,” Fanai recalls.
The youngest in a family of five, Fanai’s parents hoped to see him earn himself a government job. But that was long before the baby-faced midfielder made them realize his ability with a ball at his feet over a pen in his hand.
Fanai then joined the Regional Sports Training Centre, in Kolasib, a three hour drive from his native Aizawl, before he was called for trials to the Indian Sub-junior teams. But the next two years would prove to be tough for the 18-year old.
“After the trials I was told many times that I’ll get calls for the team, but I didn’t get any. I then returned to play at the TATA Trusts’ Centre of Excellence in Aizawl, where a few scouts arrived a few months later and selected me for the India U16 camp. Then a year later, I made the U18 camp. But I only trained most of the time and played a few friendly games in those two years. I was never really playing competitive football.”
When the world seemed to shut down around him during the pandemic, Fanai saw the rug swept away from under him. “At the start of the pandemic, I was suddenly released from the U18 camp. It was tough, but when I broke the news to my parents, they encouraged me to keep working hard and to trust that my time would come,” said Fanai.
The opportunity came knocking not long after, when Fanai was called up to join Bengaluru FC’s U18 team in 2021. “I was preparing to leave the India U18 camp when a former coach of mine at the Tata Trusts’ Centre of Excellence, Mr. Colm Toal, told me to go to Bengaluru FC. I got an opportunity to train with the U18 team and B team and signed a week later with the club.”
Playing for two years in the Bengaluru U18 and B team, the youngster found home in Bengaluru and that inspired him and many in the Karnataka state team that lifted the Santosh Trophy after a wait of 54 years. “I never imagined playing in the Santosh Trophy, let alone winning it. It was a surreal feeling. One of my earliest memories is standing on the side of the road, waving at a bus with a bunch of champions when Mizoram won the trophy, in 2014. I even knew someone on that team. I really wanted that moment for myself,” said Fanai.
“During the National Rounds, I hadn’t played too much so I was a little upset. When I went back home for the break, I realized that Bengaluru and Karnataka were also like my home. I returned with the intent to win the trophy and give something back. I started all the remaining games and the trust and togetherness of the squad saw us through,” he adds.
Fanai knew it was the start of bigger things to come. “I knew the expectations would grow after the win. But you need that to get to the next level. I feel that victory gave us all a lot of belief and, in some manner, paved the way for my debut for the first team.”
Fanai’s big moment eventually arrived when the midfielder replaced Rohit Kumar in the 56th minute of the Blues’ Super Cup opener against Sreenidi Deccan FC. The 18-year old recounts the seminal moment like it was yesterday.
“I felt that I would get a chance to play in at least one of the games, so I trained very hard. Bengaluru was the club of my dreams and it was a dream come true when I stepped onto the pitch to play with some of the players I had looked up to, growing up. I felt like it was the culmination for all the hard times me and my family went through. My parents were overjoyed to see me play and told me to keep working hard and trust in myself.”
The Super Cup experience was a great learning curve for Fanai who spoke about being amidst experienced figures in the club. “I got to learn from players like Jayesh bhai and Prabir bhai. Jayesh bhai, in particular, would take out time to help me improve and figure things out in my game. That was huge for me, to see such a big player spend time helping me out and sharing his knowledge. I learned a lot just by being around the squad and seeing how the players maintained and managed themselves.”
As he leaves to help his father and brother at the shoe shop, Fanai checks out with one final anecdote. “When Karnataka won, there were a lot of special moments. Lifting the trophy, reaching Bengaluru and being received by the massive crowd, singing with the fans at the Kanteerava. But the one that stands out the most for me is being part of that trophy parade. It was something I had experienced before, except this time around, I was on the bus waving down.”