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Footballer Sumit Rathi’s amazing season

The teenage defender of ATK lit up the Indian Super League which ended just before the covid-19 lockdown. It’s time to give him his due

Sumit Rathi is the youngest player to win the Emerging player award of the Indian Super League.
Sumit Rathi is the youngest player to win the Emerging player award of the Indian Super League.

At the end of the sixth season of the Indian Super League (ISL) on 14 March, just about 10 days before the lockdown was imposed, Sumit Rathi had become the youngest player to win the Emerging Player of the League. The 18-year-old kept India internationals Anas Edathodika and Salam Ranjan Singh out of the ISL-winning, Kolkata-based ATK squad, carving a place for himself under the extremely demanding coach Antonio Habas.

But the defender is much more than a wunderkind. Rathi is like Pac-Man waltzing through a career that has been a maze, remorselessly gobbling up footballs that are thrown into his path, resetting and coming back stronger every time one of the floating monsters gets the better of him. The pandemic and the suspension of all sport has meant that Rathi’s achievements this season have slipped under the radar, but that doesn’t make his story any less inspiring.

Born to a farming family from Sonta village in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, Rathi lost his father when he was just 4. Years later, as the mainstay of the Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA) Under-15 team, he missed out on the Asia leg of the Manchester United Premier Cup after contracting chickenpox two days before they were due to fly to Indonesia. A couple of years later, in 2017, he didn’t make the cut for India’s final U-17 World Cup squad. After the World Cup, he was part of the All India Football Federation’s developmental squad Indian Arrows but didn’t get any match time in the I-League.

But Sumit Rathi is nothing if not resilient. He takes the setbacks and turns them into hope for the future.

There have been many turning points in his fledgling career: getting noticed at the DAV Public School (Muzaffarnagar) as a fine athlete; a call from Bengaluru FC’s Nishu Kumar to Rathi’s school coach alerting him to the CFA trial when Rathi was just 9; his move to ATK Reserves, which ended with the Calcutta Football League Division 1 title; and of course, his ISL debut as a half-time substitute against Odisha FC this season. After his debut, he played all the remaining 14 games and put in a fine performance in the final.

Rathi credits his family for his success, especially his elder brother Amit, who made sure he did not have to toil on the farm.

Bhai played a very important role, especially after dad passed away. We are all farmers and when there are two boys, it is expected that they will take care of the wheat and sugar cane, but he never let me go into the field, never let the elders of the family give me work that would take the focus away from sport. Even now, while I am at home, he shields me from the fields," Rathi says.

“I had to give up a lot of things because of the sudden responsibility thrust upon me and I did not want my younger brother to face the same problems. I wanted him to do what he loves—make a solid career out of football," says Amit, who is three years older.

Sumit Rathi’s family trusted him, protected him and ensured he could become a footballer. “Once he came to me and said there was no money to buy football shoes. As he got better and was playing tournaments weekly, it was compulsory to play in studs. I had to borrow money from his grandfather. I would keep an eye on his studs—I started planning to save for when a pair would begin to tear," says his mother, Usha.

While Rathi loves the limelight, and recognizes the fact that he has a marketable appearance (he says he could have become a model if not a footballer), he is grounded, empathetic and thankful. “I still remember when he used to go for training early in the morning, he would do so without waking anyone else. Without a sound. That meant he would go without breakfast sometimes and come back home at 4pm. It would hurt that I let my son go all day without a meal but he was like that. For him, it was important to not let his hobby become a hassle for others," his mother says. It was a wrench but she didn’t stop him going on to “live the dream" when he was picked for the CFA at the age of 9.

Taking Rathi’s trials for the first time at CFA was Sandeep Singh, who has been with the academy for a decade. Singh had previously coached Sandesh Jhingan, arguably India’s first-choice centre-back. Jhingan too had won the Emerging Player of the League, in the inaugural ISL season in 2014.

“It was evident early on that Sumit is a genuine and rare left-footer, and with his physique and height, he was perfect for a defender’s role. I remember one year (2012) during the National School Games U-14 category, no one had us down as contenders, let alone winners. In fact, apart from the semi-finals that year, we won every knockout game on penalty shoot-outs and Sumit was absolutely brilliant in defence," Singh says. That year, Prabhsukhan Gill, Amarjit Singh, Sanjeev Stalin and Jeakson Singh were in the same CFA batch as Rathi—and each of them made the Under-17 World Cup squad. Jeakson scored India’s only goal in the tournament. All of them have got more playing time than Rathi as their careers have progressed in Indian football. Since he didn’t get the playing time at Indian Arrows others did and didn’t make the final cut for the U-17 World Cup, Rathi had to earn his fame the hard way—through perseverance.

“Sumit’s greatest virtue is his patience. Many boys fall through the system due to frustration at lack of opportunities but he kept on working towards finding the right place for himself—and look where he is now," Sandeep Singh adds.

In Rathi’s first eight games in the ISL, ATK managed to keep six clean sheets. He had the highest number of clearances for any under-23 player in the ISL and averaged 14 defensive actions per 90 minutes. While he has to work on his decision making, he has a penchant for keeping his defending clean, especially for a teenager who played alongside two experienced defenders in England’s John Johnson, 31, and Spain’s Agus García, 34.

“Agus is a good leader on the pitch. Before any session, he would tell me one thing: Please keep it simple, don’t try to do extraordinary things. He would push me to give everything on the pitch. As for John, his treatment of me was like a younger brother, trying to make things easy for me, on and off the pitch. That understanding among defenders is vital," Rathi says.

There are numerous instances of Indian defenders gaining from play alongside experienced foreign centre-backs. Gaurav Bora, then 20, and Roberto Eslava, then 31, in Chennai City’s I-League winning season (2018-19) and Narender Gehlot, 18, and Jose “Tiri" Arroyo, 28, at Jamshedpur FC are just some examples.

But Rathi has managed to catch the eye for his maturity—the sliding tackles are smooth and the left-footed diagonal long balls are often measured. That he has been called up for the national team by coach Igor Štimac is proof that he has the potential to play for India. “Sumit earned my call with his performances in the second half of the season. He is very young and looking strong and responsible. We don’t have huge competition in centre-back positions and he fits in our plans of building a team for the future," Stimac told Mint.

Rathi turns 19 in August—in just a few years, he has gone from being a CFA star to U-17 World Cup rejection; from being overlooked at Indian Arrows to working his way into ATK’s first team, winning the Emerging Player of the League along with an ISL champion’s medal, and getting a national team call-up. It sounds like a complete career already—and it’s remarkable that this could be just the beginning.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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