A game of rondo unfolds during Bengaluru FC’s open training session on a Sunday. It’s a light workload as compared to most days. This is more about handing their devoted supporters, the West Block Blues, the opportunity to get close to the players after a two-year hiatus due to the covid-19 pandemic.
Their new recruit, Roy Krishna, who hails from Fiji and is now a naturalised New Zealand citizen, is at the heart of it. Krishna, 34, grins and banters with his teammates. Their exchange is in Hindi, a language the striker is well-versed with. It’s been an important weapon in his armoury alongside his fluid scoring abilities, which has made him—and those around him—feel at home, ever since his arrival on Indian shores.
Krishna’s great grandparents hail from India. They were a part of the 60,000-odd indentured labour workforce that was taken to Fiji by the British in the late 19th century. The Indian touch was all around Krishna while growing up in Siberia, a village in Labasa. English was what he spoke in school, Fijian with friends outside of it, and at home, it was Hindi. As a child, he tried to master the dholak and played alongside his father, Bal Krishna, who played the harmonium, and sang songs derived from the Ramayana.
“I was quite familiar with a lot of Indian things, so it wasn’t a surprise when I first came here,” he says to Lounge. “For instance, I’ve seen a lot of foreigners struggle with the food in India. On the other hand, I can eat more chillies than locals,” he says, smiling.
Krishna’s introduction to football came from kicking balls around with cousins in his backyard. But like most Fijians, rugby was what Krishna played more often during his younger days. “It’s like cricket in India, everyone is really passionate about rugby in Fiji. It’s what we usually played at school. Then again, you need to be strong and tall to play well and I wasn’t one of them. So my parents asked me to change my sport. Luckily I took up football and that’s where it all started for me,” he says.
At primary and secondary school, Krishna was a regular on the field. His big break came when his school qualified for a local tournament, and travelled to Viti Levu, the largest island in the country. Trials followed and soon he was playing for the Fiji Under 20s.
“I got really lucky, since that was my last year to play for the school. From there, I got the opportunity to represent the youth national team, which eventually led to the move to play club football in New Zealand,” he says.
However, Krishna faced a lot resistance when he expressed his desire of playing professional football. “It’s typical Indian culture. I was told playing sport wouldn’t give you food, who’ll look after you if you get injured, why don’t you get an education and a proper job,” he says. Things aren’t much different in Fiji even today. Krishna is among a handful of national players who’ve managed to build a career in professional football. It is what he wants to address in the time ahead and be a role model for young dreamers.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t have the luxury of gaining knowledge from older players, simply because there weren’t many around. I want to go back and share my stories, how I played barefoot at one point and worked my way up to where I am today. And that if I can do it, they can do the same,” he says. “Fortunately, my dad always backed me. I used to play with the big boys in the local bazaar and he would ask me to just go enjoy myself. That’s what made it easy for me to play competitive football,” he adds.
Krishna tried to make the most of his limited resources. He idolised late Fijian striker, Simon Peters, who played for local side, Labasa Football Club. Once he had access to a smartphone, he’d spend many hours watching Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi play.
It didn’t take him long to get cracking. While still in his teens, Krishna scored a hat-trick on his national team debut in 2007. One of the teammates that he looked up to, Josaia Bukalidi, handed him a piece of advice—just be yourself, enjoy the company and keep it simple. He’s stuck with it ever since, reticent off the pitch but an effervescent personality once he dons the boots. It’s made him a prolific striker for the national team—he is currently their skipper and top-scorer—and for his club sides in New Zealand, Australia and India.
Since arriving in India, he’s played three seasons, scoring 39 goals in 66 appearances. He won the Indian Super League (ISL) with Atletico de Kolkata in 2019-20 and the following season, picked up the Golden Ball while at ATK Mohun Bagan. The joint top-scorer for two consecutive ISL seasons (2019-20, 2020-21), Krishna was on Bengaluru’s wish list for his relentless pursuit of goals.
Club skipper Sunil Chhetri admits to texting him regularly last season to check on his availability. Now that they have their man, the duo is likely to establish a lethal striking partnership. In Krishna, they have a No. 9 who thrives on the creativity of others, while using his own ingenious craft to conjure up a goal, at times, from nothing.
“Bengaluru are one of the sides that I’ve always admired, since I always found it hard to score against them. I spoke to coach, Simon Grayson, to know of his plans. Then of course, Sunil bhai (Sunil Chhetri) is at the club and there’s so much I can learn from him. So I knew it was a good idea to join them,” Krishna says.
Plying his trade in India has also handed him the opportunity to trace his roots. The covid-19 pandemic halted his efforts momentarily, but he hopes to resume his search. “When I got here, the first thing I wanted to know from my sisters was which part of India my ancestors came from. Some say I look Goan, others say I could be Bihari. What’s certain is that the moment I arrived here, I felt like I was coming home. It’s crazy how you get mobbed here, the way they chant your name. Honestly, I’m more Roy Krishna here than back home in Fiji,” he says.
Bengaluru FC got their season under way with a win in the Durand Cup against Jamshedpur FC last week. Chhetri scored the opener through a header. He then provided the assist for Krishna’s winner on debut. It’s just a sign of things to come in the months ahead.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.