After Franky Baretto and Robert Fernandes retired from the international circuit it was feared that India's defence would lack solidarity at the back. But few had noticed that under their shadows two promising youngsters were slowly maturing to become defensive behemoths who would shield India's backline for the next decade. Deepak Mondal and Mahesh Gawli went on to forge a formidable partnership at the back for India with precise and no-nonsense defending being their hallmark.
Mondal's excellent anticipation helped him foil the striker's move well in advance which would not only smother crucial build-offs but also allowed his team to regain possession to start a quick-fire counter-attack or just control the pace of the game, as the situation demanded. A product of the Tata Football Academy (TFA), Mondal was spotted by coach Ranjan Chowdhury in one of the U-16 national district matches and was immediately roped in. Under the guidance of Arun Ghosh, a defender himself, Mondal was groomed to be a solid and disciplined defender with fantastic game reading skills.
"I am indebted to Mr. Ranjan Chowdhury and Mr. Sukhwinder Singh ji for their constant support and patience during the early days of my career. Sukhiji helped me a lot as JCT was my first club as a professional in the top tier football," said Mondal to Goal.
It was during his stint with JCT in 1999 that Mondal got his first call to serve the nation. His performance caught attention as India went on to beat United Arab Emirates (UAE) 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier in Bangalore. Although Bhaichung Bhutia scored the winner, the match is still remembered for Mondal and Gawli's relentless perseverance at the back which frustrated UAE's explosive front line.
Mondal was the mainstay of India's defence during the AFC Asian Cup in 2011. In spite of putting up impressive shifts, India could not register a single point as they were competing against superior sides like Australia, South Korea and Bahrain. After eight years, India have again made it to the final rounds of the marquee continental tournament and have been grouped with Thailand, Bahrain and UAE who are relatively weaker sides than the likes of Australia and South Korea.
"It is a good opportunity for India to prove themselves in the international arena. The boys are playing good football and I am extremely hopeful. Back in 2011, we tried hard but we were up against Asian powerhouses like Korea, Australia and Bahrain. So it was extremely difficult to register a point against those teams.
"Actually in continental competitions, all teams are difficult as they come well prepared and extra-motivated. But the Indian team is playing well and I hope they will put up a good performance," opined the former India international.
In his illustrious club career, the four-time national league winner had played for both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and also went on to lead both the sides. He had come up against proven oal scorers like Odafa Okolie and Bhaichung Bhutia and he shares his experience of playing against the best.
"I have crossed paths against some of the deadliest strikers who have graced Indian football in this century. Barretto (Jose Ramirez Barretto), Bhaichung, Odafa and Yakubu (Yusif Yakubu) were the best that I have played against. I have not played against Junior (Cristiano Junior) as I was nursing my knee injury. But all these players give you a tough time as they are always looking to score. Odafa and Bhaichung almost scored at will. It was great to come up against these players," reminisced Mondal.
On questioned whether it was difficult to play against East Bengal and Mohun Bagan after serving them for long, the sturdy defender tackled the question cleanly and removed any lingering doubt.
"I am a professional player and I have no affinity for any particular club. I have played against East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and I have given my blood and sweat while I was playing against them. But when I played for these clubs I have given my all for them.
"Yes, a derby is always special and is a completely different ball game. But for that match, you do not need any extra motivation. Being a senior player you think first about your club and that itself is enough to motivate to fight for the crest in front of your shirt," stated Mondal.
The two-time Federation Cup winner has had surgeries on both knees. He suffered an injury to his left knee during India’s 1-0 win against neighbours Bangladesh during Nehru Gold Cup in 2007 and was sidelined for almost nine months before he returned to the fray in next year's South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup.
"Doctors put in their best and my surgery was successful. But the real battle begins after the surgery during the rehabilitation period. Your comeback entirely depends on how hard you work during your rehab. My parents and my team-mates stuck by me through every thick and thin. Both my club and national team-mates showered unconditional support on me during that difficult phase. I am nothing without them," reveals Mondal.
The ace defender plied his trade in the Indian Super League (ISL) as well when he turned out for Mumbai City FC in the inaugural edition in 2014. He clocked 971 minutes for the Islanders and committed just 5 fouls while being cautioned only once. Mondal has been a first hand witness to the winds of change in Indian football and he heaped praises on the ISL as he thinks that training with European footballers has helped Indians to learn a lot from their training regime to figuring out the correct diet.
"ISL is fully professional. I have learnt a lot from Anelka (Nicholas Anelka) during my stint with Mumbai. His fitness regime, his diet and work ethic was something that I admired the most. The coaches and physios also put a lot of importance on diet.
"Nowadays our Indian players pay so much attention to their diet. ISL has brought in this culture. We had a lot of problems figuring out the right diet for footballers. We did not have the know-how. Even if we had money, we did not know what supplement to take. After training with foreign players and under the guidance of foreign coaches our physical conditioning has improved a lot," said Mondal.
The John Terry fan would often go into flashback and highlight the bond that the Indian dressing room shared during his time. It is an open secret that Gawli and Mondal were not only keeping their backs on the pitch but the duo are close friends off the turf as well.
"India can never find a replacement of Mahesh Gawli. Yes, there are good defenders in the country, but no one comes close to having the quality of Mahesh Gawli. He was a class apart. Besides, he is a fantastic human being. I always believe that if you are a good human being then only you can be a good player.
"The team that won the Nehru Gold Cup and then went on to qualify for the Asian Cup was the best team that India had in this century. It was not a team but a well-knit family. Bhaichung bhai (Bhaichung Bhutia) and Renu bhai (Renedy Singh) were the leaders who closely held all of us together. You can say that we were not as successful as we should have been but we shared an incredible bond amongst ourselves. That was our greatest strength. I think only Chhetri (Sunil Chhetri) and Gurpreet (Gurpreet Singh) from that squad are currently playing for India. If you ask them I am sure they will share the same feelings," said a nostalgic Mondal from his hometown in Singhbhum district of Jharkhand.
The defender is set to return to his old stomping grounds, i.e. the Kolkata Maidan, this year as well to take part in the Calcutta Football League (CFL). Mondal has completed his AFC D License coaching certificate and the veritable stopper confirmed his intentions to be a coach sometime in future.
"If I get an opportunity to coach young players I will be the happiest. My aim is to pass on whatever I have learnt to the next generations. I have played under some wonderful coaches throughout my career and my whole career has been a learning curve. Stephen Sir (Stephen Constantine) has been an inspiration to me. He has instilled a fighting spirit in his players. It does not matter if the results do not come but he insists that we should fight the whole 90 minutes. Whereas, Shubhash Sir (Shubhash Bhowmick) knows each player individually very well and his relationship with his players is fantastic. I have picked up these small yet crucial details of coaching which I think will help me a lot if and when I step into the shoes of a coach," signed off Mondal.