The Bethseda Soccer Club based in Montogomery County of Maryland just outside the United States capital, Washington DC is a professional academy with age groups ranging from Under-8 to Under-19.
It would normally not be a location of any significance to Indian football but this is where one of the players of Luis Norton’s final squad for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup developed his understanding of the sport.
That player is Namit Deshpande, a central defender by trade and one who is set to become the first Non Resident Indian (NRI) to play for India across any age group come October 6.
At the age of eight, when his parents left their home at Shivaji Park in Mumbai to fly all the way across to the USA, football was the last thing on young Namit’s mind.
As a kid, he had never been into any kind of sports. It was only his mother, a national-level tennis player in one point, who cajoled Namit to take up the racquet sport. Even then, he never really developed a love and passion for tennis.
“The truth is, when I was in India, I’d never played a single sport. My mom was a national-level tennis player. So, the natural instinct for her was to put me in tennis. I used to go play tennis but used to persist my grandpa on heading back home so I used to skip many of my tennis classes,” the teenager recounts.
When Namit arrived in the USA, the transition wasn’t as smooth as he had imagined. Used to having multiple friends back in Mumbai, being accepted at his new school and surroundings turned out to be quite the ordeal.
Being an Indian kid, with a then limited grasp of the English language, Namit struggled initially to gel with his new peers. It was then that he first turned to football, in the hopes of making new friends.
“When I flew to the US, there was the language barrier - people weren’t so accepting of a kid who doesn’t speak the same language and is of a different colour. So football was the way into the environment over there. I made my first friends in the community through football. My cousin used to play football so that’s how I joined too. I just watched them and realized there are so many friends, I might as well join them,” he says about his introduction to the sport.
Playing football with his new friends soon became a habit for Namit, and before long, one thing led to another and the youngster became a part of the Bethseda Soccer Club at the age of 10.
It was here that the defender would get a taste of the US Soccer Development Academy (DA). When Jurgen Klinsmann was axed as the coach and technical director of US Soccer in November last year, one of his lasting legacies was to expand the DA to various age-groups, which includes introducing the Under-12 age group in 2015.
The DA is the premier youth football league in the country, featuring teams from various tiers like the Major League Soccer (MLS) and North American Soccer League. It is where the cream of future USA stars rise before their introduction to the senior MLS and the national team.
The youngster would continue playing in the DA as he moved through the various age groups. After four years with Bethseda, Namit would move to Continental FC when he played at the U-15 and U-16 age groups.
It was while playing in the DA that the inclination of playing for India someday arose in Namit. Constantly watching his peers being called up to the USA national team camps and trials, the fact that he could not represent his new country hit home.
“When I noticed many of my team-mates being called up, I felt like I have a chance but I knew that I can never play for the United States because I’m not citizen of US. So I knew India would be the best option, knowing it was hosting the World Cup. I thought it would be a good place for me to start my national career,” the teenager says.
However, being half-way across the world, the opportunity of playing for India wasn’t going to come so easily to Namit with his education being the primary focus.
Seeing a couple of his teammates being called up to the US national team, Namit decided to take matters into his own hands with the plan of sending over his videos to the All India Football Federation (AIFF). This was a period when the Overseas Scouting Portal (OSP) was just launched by the AIFF and the Sport Authority of India (SAI).
“I just checked the website, sitting one night and it was the time when a couple of my teammates were called up for the national camp a day before, so I was a bit disappointed. I felt I’m as good as them and I didn’t get the call-up and felt sad. I believed it was my chance now to play for India, knowing they were the host nation. I felt like I should send out the e-mail even though my parents were confident that nothing would come of it. So, at this point, I felt I might as well send something hoping that something good might come out.
"However, there was no e-mail address as such. I just found AIFF’s media e-mail on the website and sent my videos there. Luckily, it was Friday that week when I’d sent and on Monday, Abhishek sir (Abhishek Yadav) responded. So, that’s how it started,” he describes.
Impressed with the video and resume, Yadav, who the Chief Scouting Director of the AIFF, invited the tall defender along with his father for a 10-day trial in Brazil where the Indian Under-17 were participating in the Atletico Paranaense invitational youth tournament in December 2016.
So impressed was the then team coach Nicolai Adam with the youngster that he asked Namit to join up with the World Cup squad immediately. The teenager, who excels in academics as well, had to unfortunately decline.
“The former coach wanted me right away but academically I couldn’t meet that requirement as it meant that I would be leaving school and dropping at high school, which is big in the United States,” he remarks.
As luck would have it, Namit was given a second chance to rekindle his World Cup dreams when Adam departed under acrimonious circumstances and was replaced by Portuguese coach Luis Norton. Yadav had kept in touch with Namit’s father despite his decision to remain in the USA and when Norton arrived, the Portuguese was willing to give the defender a second shot at the national team.
“It definitely was a rollercoaster, it was another chance. The new coach Norton sir was very understanding and I got my second chance which is a dream come true after now being named in the final 21 member squad,” he exclaims.
The defender excelled once again in the trials, held in Goa this time, and was immediately called up to the squad for the Italian tour. Despite a large amount of travelling away from school, Namit still managed to do well in his exams when he returned from the Italy sojourn.
Now an integral part of Norton’s side, the NRI was at that time joining a side which had been together for over a year and the fact that a kid from the USA was being recruited just a few months before the main event did have its pitfalls.
Despite that, Namit and his new teammates gelled pretty quickly and communication was never a problem.
“I felt everyone is very understanding. I didn’t have any problem with any Indian player in specific. The language barrier was not a big issue because they could understand me and I could understand them, too. When I played on the field, I could speak enough Hindi for them to understand me and they would also speak in English for me to understand them. So, the communication was never an issue. There's no problem in working together. It’s a tight-knit group now,” he says about them.
That tight knit group will now run shoulders with an opponent Namit only knows too well come October 6 at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Delhi.
“I have come up against most of the players (in the US squad). I have played against Chris Goslin, I have actually played with the back-up goalkeeper Dos Santos CJ - when he was in Philadelphia Union because I used to train with them. I have played against Christopher Gloster earlier; he plays for New York Red Bulls. I’ve played against Christopher Durkin also, so I have played against most players, once or twice. I know how they play, they are all big names in the DA league and stars in the U-17s,” he recalls.
Though the US and other squads in the 24-team event might be light years ahead of India in their football development, Namit is itching to make the home advantage count when the tournament starts.
“I feel we (India) can definitely compete with the US team. They are a good team, there’s no doubt about it but our team is strong enough, playing in front of the home crowd we have a good chance of putting up a good result against them. I played against these players before so I am not too scared. Being on our home turf with so many fans supporting us, I don’t think it should be a problem at all.”
It will be a special occasion for Namit and his family when he dons the blue for India in the showpiece event against his adopted country and his parents will be on hand in Delhi to support him throughout the tournament.
“My family - my mom, dad and little brother, will be coming here to India. My entire family is very excited. Unfortunately, my aunt, who is also a big supporter, can’t make it as it’s her anniversary so she’s in the United States.
"But my grandparents and my aunt are going to be watching the games from there. My friends, ever since I was in the DA, they were after me that I should definitely play for India since I don’t for the US. I used to be sceptical, thinking it wouldn’t ever happen, but now it has. Everyone is really excited to watch this now. In fact, even my American friends are rooting for India,” Namit says gleefully.
Having achieved so much already at such a young age, the Mumbai-born defender is taking it step by step and remains focused only on the World Cup.
“As of now, I’m just focusing on the U-17 World Cup."
He might not be thinking about it now, but come October, Namit could be making even bigger strides than he already has as India participate in its first ever World Cup across any age-groups. He, along with 20 of India’s finest, shall carry the football torch of a billion plus people with the promise of a brighter future ahead for the sport in the country.
Watch Namit Deshpande and the India U17 team in action on Sony Ten 2 and Sony Ten 3 - the official broadcaster of the FIFA U17 World Cup!