The pacy defender talked about the importance of playing in the Champions League, his time in lockdown and more.

Last season was like a dream for ATK’s defensive pillar Pritam Kotal, as he guided his team to Indian Super League glory. Marshalling the defence, he played as a centre-back in a three-man backline under head coach Antonio Habas and came up with some stellar performances.

However, after a splendid campaign, the defender from West Bengal is currently staying at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. He’s urging people to look at the brighter side of things during this crisis.

“The main thing that COVID taught me was to spend quality time with my family. I haven’t spent this much time with my family in years,” said the 26-year-old in a live Instagram session on Indian Football Team’s official page.

When asked about his diet during the lockdown, the ATK defender highlighted the importance of food in an athlete’s life. He said,” My family teases me for having Quinoa, but you see a diet of a sportsperson is very different. We aren’t in the 1970s-80s anymore, now diet plays a crucial role in a sportsperson’s life. Sunil (Chhetri) Bhai suggested me to have a proper diet and I would like to thank him for this. He is always very precise about this and over the years, players have understood the importance of having a proper diet. Our recovery only fastens up when we have a proper intake,”

Coming back to his career, Pritam Kotal started as a defensive midfielder in his early days. From Wari FC to the India U-19s, he played in the heart of midfield and then suddenly under India’s former Technical Director, Colm Toal, he started plying his trade as a right-back.

“Colm (Toal) sir has a big influence in my life. After playing the BC Roy Trophy, I got chance in AIFF ((All India Football Federation) training centre in Goa. I gave the trials and also played two matches in defensive midfield. But then, Colm sir asked me whether I can play at right-back or not? I readily agreed. From then, he used to take extra sessions after training to make me understand my new position.”

“But, during our camp in China, I had a knee injury and did not get to feature in any of the games. I also lost hope of getting back to the team. But Colm sir selected me and had a lot of confidence in my abilities. He would always guide us, teach us discipline, whilst improving our basics.”

Any positional transition in football takes time and a lot of understanding. The same happened with Pritam Kotal, as he struggled in his early days as a right-back.

“I struggled a lot in the first 2-3 months. Playing at right-back is a lot different than playing as a defensive midfielder. Here you have to maintain a balance between attack and defence. I used to defend more carrying my traits from defensive midfield. But, Colm sir helped me understand the movements perfectly,” added the former Mohun Bagan man.

Speaking about playing in multiple positions in football and the adaptability, Kotal feels it adds more dynamism to the team and offers the coach more options. “In modern football, a player must be versatile and offer his coach at least 2-3 positions. Then he will get more chances. I remember during my Pailan Arrows days, then coach Arthur Papas also played me in central defence. So, I used to train with my friend Narayan (Das) and put extra emphasis on my heading and passing.”

“As a centre back, you need great communication skills. But, I was an introvert, so I also had to work on that aspect to flourish in that position. With time and with Arthur’s help, I improved in that position.”

It has been a hot and cold FIFA 2022 World Qualifiers for the Blue Tigers. Igor Stimac’s men started well against Oman and Qatar, but back-to-back draws against Bangladesh and Afghanistan pegged them back in the race. With Qatar visiting India in October and chances of playing international friendlies very slim, it will be difficult for the team to challenge the Asian champions. Therefore Kotal emphasized that a national camp is of utmost importance ahead of the remaining qualifiers.

“These are difficult times that we are going through. Without preparation and friendlies, it will be very tough against Qatar. They are a superpower in Asia and we would need some camps to prepare ourselves. I am sure that the players are training themselves at home. But, I think we would need a camp to prepare as a team. Friendlies are not in our hands, as the whole world is going through this. But, we will try and do our best against Qatar and also in the remaining matches.”

Over the years, a lot of young players have come through the ranks and are challenging for a place in the national team. The ATK defender feels that this competition among players will help the team to progress. “I think competition is important at the national level. It helps us improve as players and also as a team. In the last five years, there has been tremendous competition in every position and no one takes it for granted. People push each other and try to be better than the other.”

Pritam Kotal was full of praise for former India international Deepak Mondal. He revealed how Mondal was his idol during his early days. “I used to admire Deepak Mondal a lot. Being a defender, I followed him during his days. We are still in touch, as he congratulated me on the ISL triumph with ATK. I noted his playing style and calm nature on the field.”

Reminiscing about the 2015 SAFF Championship victory over Afghanistan in Trivandrum, where the visitors took India very lightly and finally paid the price, Kotal said, “We were going through a re-building process during that time and did not have the best results heading into SAFF. But, we had the aim of winning the tournament from the first day. We trained hard and qualified for the final against Afghanistan.

“They took us lightly and there was a poster at the ground from an away fan indicating that they want a 5-0 scoreline against us. So, that was shown to us ahead of the match which motivated us a lot. We won the match 2-1 and it was a special night as it was my first trophy for the national team.”

Lastly, the versatile defender highlighted the importance of Indian teams getting a direct slot in the AFC Champions League and how that experience may help the national team.

“I think it is a very important tournament for us. All I want to say to FC Goa and the teams that will qualify in the coming seasons is that they should take this tournament very seriously. The experience the players will gather in this tournament will help them grow and help in the progress of the national team. I want to wish Goa a lot of luck for their ACL campaign this season, ” concluded Pritam Kotal.

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