The knock on the door is soft, much like his demeanor off the pitch. It takes him a bit to make his request known, and when he does, you know that Faisal Ali has spent time thinking about whether or not to make it at all.
“Woh Chhetri bhai ke saath jo photo liya tha, woh mujhe bhej do na please?”
(That picture you clicked of me and Chhetri bhai, can you please send that to me).
At the team hotel in Kolkata where the Blues are staying for their Durand Cup campaign, a deal is struck. Ali picks the picture he wants and makes the transfer to his phone. In return, he then sits down for a quick chat.
“I always loved playing football and I think that came from my elder brother, who played at an amateur level. When I was 13, I had decided that I wanted to become a footballer. I was working hard and spent three years playing in different grounds hoping I’d get noticed and went for a bunch of trials but never got selected. Then one day my parents made it clear that they had had enough,” says Ali.
Time is of the essence during this interview, with lunch set at noon in the Blues’ dining area and the prospect of paying a fine looming large should he be late. By his own admission, deadlines don’t faze him. Back at home in Jannagar Road, Ali’s parents had told him that if football wasn’t working out, maybe it isn’t meant for him.
“In our community, people generally start earning at an early age to make ends meet. So when my parents told me that I had to look around for jobs, I convinced them to let me try making it in football. They agreed, but only on the premise that I would take up a part-time job somewhere. My mother gave me two years before I had to quit football and focus on my job,” he recalls.
After playing and practicing the sport he loves at the nearby Park Circus ground in the morning, Ali would make a quick bolt to be at school on time. Then, later in the evening, a quick snack was all he could afford before heading to the nearby Medical Store where he worked the night shift.
“The only job I could find that worked with my schedule was at a round-the-clock medical store. I would take prescriptions, hand them the medicine, do the billing; all the usual stuff. I earned 1,800 rupees a month. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Most importantly, it gave my parents an answer when someone asked them what I was doing in life. All the while, all I wanted was to be able to give them the opportunity to say I was a professional footballer.”
Between training, school and night shifts at the pharmacy, Ali would make the occasional run to a trial. In 2018, following a late exit from selections organized by Kolkata Police, scouts from the Kolkata Football Academy took his name down.
“That was my first break. I went home and told my parents that I wanted to join KFA and move 20 kilometers away to their facility. They weren’t sure because my siblings stayed at home and no one had ever gone away from Jannagar. My mother was the most apprehensive. She even said I could quit my job and not earn anything, but that I had to stay at home. Thankfully, my father and brothers convinced her to let me go. My bags were already packed.”
From Kolkata Football Academy to Southern Samity and then to Bhawanipore FC, life moved quickly for Ali. After playing for Bhawanipore in the I-League qualifiers of 2020, Mohammedan SC came calling. Ali admits that he felt a career in football was taking shape for him.
“I played two seasons for Mohammedan Sporting, and I just wanted to give my best in every match I played. I didn’t know who was watching me and I didn’t have any aspirations to join a big club or get to the ISL just yet. I was playing football at a professional level and I was enjoying it; that had been my dream all along.”
A run to the final of the 2021 Durand Cup and a runners-up finish in the 2021-22 I-League later, Faisal got the call from Bengaluru FC. Assistant Coach Naushad Moosa had watched him in action, and the Blues wasted no time in drafting the 22-year-old into their squad.
“I can’t explain how it felt when I heard about Bengaluru FC wanting to sign me. I had offers from a few other clubs, but this was the one that I wanted the most because it gave me the opportunity to learn. Every time I see Chhetri bhai I think to myself how lucky I am to be able to feed off his experience. He has been playing at the highest level since I was only two years old!”
Faisal is under no illusion that time on the pitch will be one that he has to earn for himself. Competition for places in the Blues’ squad is as high as it can get, but it is a challenge that the youngster says he wants to face head on.
“I’d be a fool if I came here thinking I’d make it into the first team straight away. There are players who are better than me, and I have to work hard and get better than them. It’s simple. Getting an opportunity to play in the team is my first priority and when I get that, I want to do as well as I can.”
Ali leaves for lunch, and he’s made it on time. Later in the day, the picture we sent him makes its way to his Instagram. The caption is one he wrote by himself; ‘we’re not beginners forever, but we never stop learning.’