As the I-League season enters its second phase, the race for the top spot is getting interesting with each passing round. East Bengal was considered as one of the most balanced sides in the I-League at the start but the Kolkata giants has enjoyed a mixed bag of results so far. After the derby win against Mohun Bagan, TheHardTackle’s Resident Author Joseph George caught up with East Bengal vice captain Harmanjot Khabra to have a brief football chat. The duo discussed about football in Punjab, I-League, International trials, Indian Football team etc over half an hour. The excerpts are given below.
Q) First of all Congratulations on the big derby win over Mohun Bagan. Leading East Bengal side to a win over Mohun Bagan isn’t an easy task, how was your experience?
Harmanjot Khabra: Thank you very much. It was a lucky moment, within 10 seconds after wearing the Captains armband we scored the goal. It was my pass to Lalrindika Ralte, which lead to that wonderful goal.
Q) That goal was worthy of winning any match, how was it watching from close range?
Harmanjot Khabra: Lalrindika Ralte got a good punch to the dropping ball and then Shilton Paul was beaten by the unexpected shot. Keeper was taken by surprise, and couldn’t judge it properly. It was a sweet strike from Dika and that did the trick.
Q) East Bengal didn’t have the best start in this I-League campaign despite the high hopes from fans. You have tasted few defeats already, what are your take on it?
Harmanjot Khabra: When a new coach comes to Indian Football, sometimes it becomes difficult for him. He might not know the players qualities, their weakness and the conditions. He might not be able to work on the weaknesses and the team suffered because of that.
Then playing at Kalyani Stadium wasn’t easy as travelling for 2.5 hours took a lot of energy and it wasn’t the ideal preparation for a match as the roads were very bungy…. bungy…. Even though Dempo won against us, it was partially due to the travelling and then the lack of tactics, strategy, shape…. also played a part.
When we were playing under Trevor Morgan we had some confidence, and tactics. This is our strategy, this is our strength, this is our weakness, this is our shape etc. that we tried in the past 3-4 seasons and we got the results on that.
When a new coach comes he brings a lot of new ideas. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why we got some problems at the starting. Now it’s ok, the derby win and the players are enjoying the practice and all the sessions.
Q) Harmanjot Khabra’s impact was very much restricted under Marcos Falopa. There were rumors circulating that some players revolted during that time as well. What went wrong for you?
Harmanjot Khabra: I had an injury that time, that’s why I didn’t play in most of the matches. Doctor said that my injury is going to take 6 months, but my Physio did a good job and I became fit in 3 months time. I wanted to come back slowly by playing 15-20 minutes in Calcutta League matches, but he asked me to take some more rest as he needed me in most important matches. He is the coach and I can’t do anything about that. Then, Falopa put me directly into the AFC Cup Semifinal match against Kuwait. They were a team playing friendlies against good European sides and it was very difficult to raise my game to that level suddenly. Unfortunately, I couldn’t raise my game and failed to get the rhythm, Coach had to substitute me at half time.
Then after a few matches I got another chance and luckily did well along with Mehtab in the middle. I had to prove myself again, as a professional you have to be on the toes all the time. Nobody is going to listen to the excuses all the time, if you are practicing with the team, you are considered as fit and then you are going to play with the team. It’s upto the coach that how he is going to use you. We won against Bangalore and I got my rhythm back. I am playing continuously nowadays.
Q) What are your Expectations on Armando Colaco. Will he be able to guide EB back to the top?
Harmanjot Khabra: The team is in the mood and we are enjoying the sessions under Armando Colaco. We have a few games in hand and if we win all of them we can be on top of the table. Practically we have to take it match by match.
Q) Football in Punjab has suffered due to the closing down of JCT. Local players aren’t coming up into the big stage. If a new team comes from Punjab like Bengaluru FC, do you think it will change the scenario?
Harmanjot Khabra: I have heard that JCT are planning to make one and there are good industrialists also. There are so many businessmen in Punjab, but they are not ready to sponsor football. Somebody needs to tell them about the benefits and the publicity one can get by putting money in football. Only those people who are involved in Indian Football knows about these things, others have no idea about it. A businessman will always think about his business.
I think it will take more time in Punjab, but many players are losing out due to this scenario. There are players who can play in I-League, but they are not getting chance even in I-League second division. It’s very difficult for the youngsters to move to other states to play football. One has to face so many problems. In B-division, Clubs aren’t that professional and players will not get accommodation and other facilities. One has to play football continuously for two months and there is nothing afterwards. In Punjab it’s very difficult, but I have heard that JCT are making a team again, let us see what comes out of it.
Q) From Sporting Club de Goa to Vice Captain of East Bengal. What next for Harmanjot Khabra? Like some of your colleagues do you want to try your luck abroad?
Harmanjot Khabra: It’s good that players are going to play abroad. IMO players have to prove first in Indian Football, that you have the capabilities and abilities. One can target many achievements in Indian Football and I haven’t got any recognition till now. I tried to do my best and best in Indian Football in the last two years without getting any national recognition, still I am trying. I am not blaming any-body, if I am good I will get a chance in the Indian Camp. I have so many things to prove in Indian Football, rather than going out to give trials.
Q) What personal targets have you set for yourself this season?
Harmanjot Khabra: My target is to be in the team first, as East Bengal is a very competitive team. As a midfielder I need to score more goals which will give me more confidence and attention. And if you score regularly no one can keep you out of the squad.
Q) You have been rated as one of the most versatile players in I-League? Which is your favourite position?
Harmanjot Khabra: I have played as a Stopper, Right back, Central Midfield, Striker etc… When the coach is looking for someone to play a particular role, I want to be that one. When the coach trusts me with a difficult job, that gives me confidence and it’s a big morale booster for me. I would like to give everything in that role and am happy to take that challenge.
In modern football, one needs to be ready to play multiple positions. A stopper might get his break as a right back or left back, but he needs to be ready for that challenge all the time. I have been asking my younger brother to play in all positions to be ready for any challenge. As a Punjabi, we are considered as tough and that will give an added advantage.
I started as a stopper and failed to make it to the TFA after the trials. Then I got another chance in TFA after the Indian camp and got through it. Not many know that the Vice Captain of East Bengal is the same Khabra who was thrown out of TFA at the start of his career.
I am ready to take up new challenges and am ready to play in any role the coach wants me to do. It’s a confidence booster as I know that the coach believes in my capabilities and I want to repay his faith.
Favourite Indian Club – East Bengal
Favourite International Club – Arsenal
Favourite Indian Player (All time) – I.M. Vijayan
Favourite International player – Lionel Messi
Most Memorable moment – The winning goal against Mohun Bagan in last year’s I-League derby.
TheHardTackle would like to thank Srija Ganguly for arranging the interview and wishes Harmanjot Khabra all the best for his future endeavors.