The East Bengal captain spoke on range of issues concerning his journey in Indian football.
While Indian football have seldom seen players sticking to a club for a long time, one such example has to be East Bengal midfielder Lalrindika Ralte. Popularly known as Dika, the midfielder has been with the Red and Gold for a major chunk of the last decade. He has also featured for a handful of ISL teams including Mumbai City FC, then Atletico de Kolkata and NorthEast United but eventually returned to play for East Bengal. In a recent exclusive chat with the midfielder, he spoke on several aspects such as the disappointment in 2019-20 season, the effect of the pandemic, comparison between ISL and I-League and more.
East Bengal started well but then faltered their way in the 2019-20 season and eventually, resulting in the resignation of head coach Alejandro Menendez. Lalrindika Ralte admitted that the season was not up to the mark and feels mid-season changes were the root cause of the poor performance.
“Honestly, last season was not that great in comparison to the season earlier. We improved during the last phase but Mohun Bagan were very far ahead. The team environment was nice at the start but the changes in the mid-season hindered our progress,” he said.
“Alejandro is a very good coach, he was very disciplined and his playing style was also suitable for the team. We used to work well in both aspects of attack and defence. We improved a lot under him, the young players were mostly benefited. He created a great team with the perfect mix of youth and maturity in both the seasons. He is very good both personally and also as a professional,” the midfielder opined on Alejandro Menendez.
The 27-year-old midfielder has played under several coaches in Kolkata. Speaking on East Bengal’s inability to clinch the I-League, he pointed out mistakes came into the way of clinching the title. “It is very difficult to retrospect. I am at East Bengal since 2012, I was there during (Trevor) Morgan’s time, Eelco’s (Schattorie) time, Armando’s (Colaco) time. The team was pretty strong during those years as well. The players were good and the environment of the team has always been very peaceful. We have come close every year but due to some of the mistakes we were not able to win the I-League. I feel bad for the fans but I hope one day we win it for them.”
Lalrindika Ralte also went on to highlight that it is not easy to handle pressure in Kolkata. “Clubs in Kolkata are big, East Bengal is no different. It is not easy to play for these clubs. Every match is important when you are representing East Bengal. We have not been able to win the I-League and it feels bad. The pressure is always there as it is a big club, so it is not easy to play for the club.”
“I tell the players to play from their hearts and always leave 100% on the ground. I try to motivate the young players and make it clear to the team that we will have to win every game. We like to help each other,” the 27-year-old added.
One of the longest serving players of East Bengal since the turn of the century, Lalrindika Ralte recollected former Indian football team technical director Colin Toal’s impact on his game.
“I have worked under a lot of coaches at the national team and also at East Bengal. Everyone is different from another. But for me, Colin Toal was like a father. He taught us everything, not only football but also how to behave as a human. I like most of the coaches but Colin Toal is at the top because he treated us like his own children during the U-16 and U-19 national team camps.”
A conflict arose in the 2019-20 season between East Bengal officials and former investors Quess Corp and during the last season, making its way to the headlines often. However, Lalrindika Ralte being one of the senior players at the squad, claims that the players and coaches were professional and they only concentrated on things that they can control.
“It did not affect us much. Both sides were very professional and from our side as well the players were very focused. The coaches and the players discussed doing our own thing and not to pay attention to things that were not in our hands.”
Adding to the conflict between club officials and former investors, East Bengal, similar to the sports fraternity across the world was hit by the coronavirus pandemic that saw a Kolkata derby being postponed. Speaking on what followed, Lalrindika Ralte revealed how did the entire situation turn out for him.
“Coronavirus affected everyone, it is not just the players but our families are also being affected. A lot of players had to struggle a lot to get back home, mainly the foreigners. We had to stay at Kolkata for some time as there were no flights to Mizoram. So we had to travel for four days by road to reach home,” the midfielder revealed.
Althought an East Bengal player since 2012, Lalrindika Ralte joined ISL outfit ATK in 2016, when current Spain technical director Jose Molina led the team to win the title for the second time. Reminiscing his time under the 50-year-old tactician, Ralte feels the influence of overseas players on the Indian players was vital to the success.
“That year our team was very strong. Our foreign players, (Helder) Postiga, (Iain) Hume, Borja (Fernandez) had already played for top clubs in Europe and they helped the youngsters and the Indian players by motivating us and sharing their experience. Our team environment was very good and that is one thing I feel was important for winning the title that year.”
“It is difficult to compare both the leagues, I-League is good and is not easy by any means. In both the leagues you play 11vs11 and with the same ball so not much difference. In ISL the hospitality was very good, we used to stay in 5-star hotels and had good practice grounds and even the foreigners that are coming are good in quality in comparison to that of I-League.”
“But I-League is also bringing in players who have a different set of skills, like Sony Norde who was here a few years ago was very skillful. I think if your compare then facilities wise there is a difference but football is more or less the same,” Ralte added when was asked to compare the ISL and the I-League.
With an experience of playing all over India as an East Bengal player, Lalrindika Ralte feels that the passion for football in Kolkata is unparalleled. “Northeast is my home, but there aren’t any place like Kolkata. The passion for football here is on a different level. When we are off the pitch we get a lot of respect here from the supporters. Kolkata is one of the best places for football in India.”
The East Bengal captain has not represented the country for a while. Ralte revealed that he would like to return to the national team, however, is ready to give up on his place for a youngster who has the potential to do well in the international stages.
“I always want to return to the national team. But it will be not easy, as there is a lot of players coming up from the U-23 team. They are playing really well and they are no less than any other nation if any aspect, be it skill-wise or even in physicality. So if I can give my place for a young talented player who will do well for the nation, then why not? I always want to come back but the youngsters should get their due chances,” he signed off.