The defender speaks exclusively to Khel Now on the ISL, his love for Kolkata and much more…

“Having done all that is required, there is always something or the other that needs to be done to get better by the day. Perhaps doing the right thing at the right time for the team and may be even scoring some goals would be on my list for the remaining matches to come,” said Rahul Bheke, East Bengal’s first-choice right back.

Bheke has a story impeccably made for the movies, yet the player keeps a low profile and allows his game to do the talking. We caught up with him in a free-wheeling chat. The first question was how it all started.

“Playing for my school during my 5th & 6th standard is where I started playing football. Loved playing it for my college team and got even more motivated after I got selected in the Mahindra U-19 team which was the turning point towards my football career.” Mahindra United, at that point of time, was one of the premier Indian football clubs. When did he decide to take the game professionally?

“After my stint with the Mahindra U-19 team, I was excited to make it to the senior team but eventually ended up being scouted and selected for the other Mumbai outfit – Air India. Having had a promising run with Air India I was eager to play football to the highest level and that’s when making a career in football became the lone goal.”

Rahul delved a little more into his time with Mahindra United and Mumbai FC. He said, “The Mahindra U-19 team being my first stint in a professional setup was quiet a learning experience and a very important part in shaping my character to taking up the chance at Mumbai FC. My time with Mumbai FC was a great learning experience as I got the chance to rub shoulders with the best of Mumbai players and also legendary players from other parts of the country and even managers and coaches from foreign soil.”

Playing for East Bengal can be a juggler for many, but not for a tough nut like him. Bheke is still optimistic with his side. “We started the season on a high, winning match after match and staying on top of the table, we are second, just three points behind Aizawl. But the last few matches have been disappointing as the results don’t show the real picture. But we are doing all that it takes to change our fortunes and go on to win the title.”

Bheke has enjoyed his time in the ISL.

Rahul has worked with two class acts in the managerial space: Trevor Morgan and Antonio Lopez Habas. We asked him to compare the two and he adjudges, “Both are exceptional, no comparisons. Both have their own style and have always helped me grow as a footballer. Since I have been under their wings I have only gotten better two folds. Trevor Morgan has been a great mentor with his expertise and methodologies. Habas on the other had has instilled confidence with his impeccable sense of the game. I am thankful to both of them for having helped me up my ante and do the best for East Bengal and FC Pune City respectively.”

Rahul has a very straight-forward outlook on the Indian Super League, I-league or the merger. The former Mumbai FC player said, “Anything and everything that can take and assures to take Indian football to new heights has a welcome gesture in my eyes. The most important criteria is to provide infrastructure, exposure and opportunities to youngsters.”

Asked about his most fond memories of the ISL, Rahul thinks for a moment or two and replies, “My ISL journey has been quiet a memorable one, from the very first match of the ISL I’ve played, every match has been memorable. My long throws have made me a very recognized player. Also the goalline save against Goa this year is one memorable feat I have of me from the ISL.”

“Do you miss Mumbai?” we quizzed him. Bheke replied with a smile. “Asking a Mumbaikar about another city is a crime, as I love Mumbai to the core. I Have grown up, studied and even played in Mumbai.  So nothing is better than Mumbai. But Kolkata on the other hand has its own aura and charm. What I love most about the city of Kolkata is its fans.”

The defender is focussed on title glory with East Bengal and is loving life in Kolkata.

Kolkata and its Maidan is known throughout the world for worshiping its players. What’s his favourite aspect about them? He added, “The fans are extremely loving, passionate and equally crazy for the team and always want the team and its players to do their best and make their team win. They worship players like gods and it’s a pleasure to be part of this team which has such crazy fan frenzy and treats us as family. Having a sweet tooth is another reason to the love for this city as I am extremely fond of the sweets and Misti Doi to be precise.”

Talking about favourites, Rahul rates Delhi Dynamos and Mohun Bagan centre-back Anas Edathodika as his favorite Indian player. Globally, he chooses the ever-dependable and Mr. Consistent, Phillip Lahm.

When asked about the transition he’s seen over the years, Bheke seemed quite positive. “With growth in infrastructure of Indian football, there has been an increase in the number of people following the game, increase in youngsters taking up football as a profession and a career. The coverage and exposure by the media has brought football to a better level and has brought football to be seen in a better light by the fans and players together.”

We asked him about the changes we still need to make to improve. He suggested, “With the shape and face of Indian football changing fast there is still room for improvement. Aspects such as ball possession, game play and indirect football still are amiss from our standards, but with exposure to foreign coaches the picture will change soon.”

“Winning the I-League for East Bengal and its fans is top priority as of now,” said Bheke, when asked about the targets this season. “We want to leave nothing behind to achieve this. Also, making it to the national team and playing for the country in the blue jersey remains in focus always.”

Bheke has a clear and vibrant message for the U-17 team. “It’s the biggest chance anyone can get to play for the country at a young age. My message to the youngsters in the U-17 Indian national team is to be serious, work hard and be patient and take it match by match and treat every match as the most important match of their lives. With this I wish them all the luck for the tournament.”