'My favourite player for life is Ronaldo'
Virat Kohli holds forth on FC Goa, how he juggles his leadership roles, and his favourite footballer
It is 23 September—the day after South Africa comprehensively beat India in the third T20 International in Bengaluru. Everyone who is dealing with him is a bit wary of upsetting the Indian cricket captain.
Virat Kohli is in Goa for the afternoon, his schedule managed by the minute, to fulfil his commitments as a co-owner of the Indian Super League (ISL) team FC Goa. It is a quick, short trip and everything needs to be in sync.
The event is to unveil the new team jersey at the Bambolim Athletic Stadium, with a few hundred enthusiastic fans from the three official fan clubs of FC Goa in attendance. It’s not clear whether the fans have come predominantly to see the team’s new colours or the cricketer, but it’s still a spectacle.
“Getting associated with Goa was an easy decision because I knew if I had to be involved with a team in the ISL, it had to be a place where football is the most important thing," explains Kohli later. “Five years down the line (since 2014), I think we are established as one of the top clubs. The plans we have for the future would not have been possible without the culture that is here."
The sixth season of ISL begins on 20 October, with FC Goa playing their first match three days later against Chennaiyin FC.
The ceremony lasts less than half an hour and Kohli is ushered back inside. In the changing room, he quickly gets into a white T-shirt. A few of the footballers’ families want pictures with India’s most famous active sportsman, even as a child tries to engage him in conversation in Spanish. A picture of restless energy, he does a quick check of his mobile phone and frowns a bit before sitting down. A bowl of nuts is placed next to him.
Thirty-year-old Kohli, currently the world’s No.1 ranked One Day International batsman, is not the only cricketer with interests in the ISL and other sports teams—M.S. Dhoni is involved with Chennaiyin FC (and Hockey India League team Ranchi Rays) and Sourav Ganguly with ATK (formerly Atlético de Kolkata). Sachin Tendulkar used to have a stake in Kerala Blasters. FC Goa have made it to two finals (2015, 2018-19) and two semi-finals (2014, 2017-18), but haven’t yet won the title. But the team won the Super Cup this April.
“You can’t pinpoint what goes inside a player’s mind on that day," elaborates Kohli. “Sometimes, the opposition has more belief. If you have accepted that the opposition has outplayed us, then results will come your way. But you have to be patient—you can’t walk on to the pitch and say you deserve to win. If you always find excuses, you will never cross the line."
“It’s a game of small margins," he continues. “I can’t pinpoint a larger reason to why we (FC Goa) have not crossed the line. There could be so many technical things going on within the game. I can feel compassion and empathy for the players because I know what a player feels like (on losing)."
For football to get closer to the same standards as cricket—in viewership and sponsorships—the sport needs more visibility, he believes. “I think the standard of Indian football has gone up through the ISL. The league is becoming more professional—all these things add to the exposure of the sport. Secondly, the bigger the league gets, the more sponsors come in. Financial solidarity goes hand in hand to get a sport to a level that probably cricket is at right now. If the Indian cricket team was ranked 8-9-10 in all formats, you would not have sponsors.
“Once the team becomes stronger because of the league—once the players start doing something magical, drastic, children will believe that we can have a career in football as well and not just cricket. It will not be long before we are one of the top nations in Asia (in football)."
Indian football and the ISL will have to move forward together for the sponsors to come, Kohli says. “Then maybe some big names will come in and not just players past their prime or those who have just finished. That will make a massive difference."
Alessandro del Piero, Robert Pires, Roberto Carlos, Nicolas Anelka and Freddie Ljungberg are just some of the big names that have participated in previous seasons—all of them after retiring from top-level football.
Kohli doesn’t see any difference in the various leadership roles he performs, as captain of the national cricket team, of the Indian Premier League’s Royal Challengers Bangalore franchise, and as one of the owners of FC Goa. “You need to have vision, stay true to it. When people don’t believe in you, you still have to believe in that vision. It’s not always about the results, but have you left the place better than when you came in? For that, you have to take care of standards, be precise about what you want to do and drive the vision from the top."
For someone with a packed schedule, he manages to watch a lot of football, though his choices depend on the teams playing on the day. He is partial to Manchester City in the Premier League as well as Serie A side Juventus because he is a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I love people who are convinced about what they do. My favourite player for life is Ronaldo, because everyone has skill but not that kind of will. For someone to keep up with (Lionel) Messi, with the kind of talent he has, purely on the basis of hard work and conviction, he (Ronaldo) is a beast. If you can turn your talent into that, it’s far more worthy of respect than someone who has unbelievable raw, natural talent like Messi.
“For me, the progress of Ronaldo is more relatable," says Kohli.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. The writer was in Goa for this interview at the invitation of FC Goa