In spite of being a part of Aizawl’s fairytale I-League title win in the 2016-17 season, Ashutosh Mehta, until very recently, was damned with faint praise as a ‘reliable’ rightback. However, there are few players who can rival him for consistency. Just look at his resume: apart from Aizawl, there’s Mumbai FC, Mumbai City, Pune City and ATK (now ATK-Mohun Bagan). After winning the I-League title for a second time with Mohun Bagan in 2019-20, it’s clear that coaches trust him for his athleticism, commitment and the ability to keep things simple on the football pitch. Mehta has clearly earned the trust of NorthEast United coach Khalid Jamil. The latter is known for his pragmatism but also his winning mentality. After all, Jamil won the I-League with Aizawl and then led NorthEast United to the semifinals of the recently-concluded Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21 season. Mehta was an integral part of both sides, and he finally made his India debut in a friendly against Oman in March this year.
“I used to tell people that I like being the underrated player in any side, but I was reminded by many that once you pull the India jersey on, you are not underrated anymore,” says the 30-year-old, who lives in Mumbai.
And that change, of finally being part of the national team, means that he has had to look after his body more than ever. Especially during the pandemic, when training on a pitch is not possible. “I have invested in some equipment at home, and there is some outdoor space in the colony I live in. One of my neighbours told me the other day to give rest to the grass in the garden,” says Mehta, who has devised a method of training which keeps his entire day occupied.
The defender, who played 18 matches for NorthEast United this season, trains thrice a day; with each session lasting 45 minutes. The first session in the morning is a stretching routine, the second around early evening consists of weight training, and the third session incorporates strength training and rehabilitation work. “The physios have told me about certain muscle imbalances that I have, which may result in recurring injuries. So I am focusing on balancing these out and working on being at my fittest whenever football returns.”
Mehta was always a bit of a gym-freak, but admits that the past few years has been about gathering a better knowledge of fitness. In part, this has come from observing other pros like India captain Sunil Chhetri, former Uruguay, Manchester United and Atletico Madrid star Diego Forlan, and the vastly experienced ex-Premier League marksman Robbie Keane.
“I wouldn’t say I was making mistakes in the gym. Instead, I think I just didn’t know enough: how a footballer needs to train differently, what and how much to eat, how important sleep is, and why rehab work is so important for longevity of my career. But I have realised that the right mindset plus the knowledge to train right is equal to more power on the pitch,” he says.
Most importantly, Mehta has changed his food habits. He avoids sugar, and anything fried. “It was Keane who told me that if you take care of your body now, it will take care of you in the future,” he says, adding that until he was around 25-years-old, his food habits wouldn’t show on his body. That has changed as his metabolism has slowed over the last five years.
“I am from a Gujarati family where my mum thinks that being lean means I am not eating enough. We are fond of eating so I have had to make sacrifices. Now I am all about fruits, nuts, greens, and enough protein,” says the full-back whose Instagram is full of posts of his clean meals.
If someone asks for fitness tips from him, he will give them the usual checklist: identifying fitness goals, the best way to achieve them with different training methods; and the importance of being consistent. “Stop snacking on pointless carbs in between your meals. Drinking three litres of water will help curb these cravings and make you healthier,” he says.
Right-back is one of the most important positions in modern football. Mehta does his share of attacking work in matches—he put in the third-highest number of crosses in the NorthEast United squad this season. His position is one of near-constant motion: tracking back in defence and making overlapping runs on the wing to help with attacking plays. Manning an entire flank is not easy, and when it comes to the national team, there’s no dearth of competition for his position. Mehta is currently nursing a minor adductor muscle injury, but is working hard to be ready when called up once again.
“Khelne ka mazaa alag hai when you’re fit (the joy of playing is different when you’re fit),” he says. “You feel superior: acceleration, jumping, speed, power, it all becomes easy. Let’s say the ball is 50-50 or 70-30, you can still think your endurance will get you to win it,” he says. It’s clear that Mehta is enjoying shedding the underrated tag.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writes on football and fitness.