The midfield maestro who is making the Bagan faithful dream of a second I-League title…
Joseba Beitia is not someone who is unfamiliar with the atmosphere of a derby. During his stint with Real Sociedad B, he has played in the much-acclaimed Basque derby against Athletic Bilbao. But the Spanish midfielder, who has also witnessed the El Clasico, has no qualms in accepting that only a very few other rivalries in the world can match the spectacle of a Kolkata derby.
On September 2, when Beitia walked on to the pitch of the Salt Lake Stadium against East Bengal he was greeted by a deafening cheer that he believes will continue to echo in his ears for a very long time.
“It is the best atmosphere I have come across in my career. The fans were amazing. These are special matches. You live to play these. It means the world to our fans to win this match and we will give our all to win this one,” stated Beitia to Goal.
The 29-year old playmaker is a product of Real Sociedad’s academy and has spent his developing years training alongside French international Antoine Griezmann. He has plied his trade for various Segunda division teams and this is the first time that he has opted to wear the colours of a club outside Spain. Although Beitia has won hearts in his very first appearance for Mohun Bagan in Durand Cup the Spaniard reveals that he did struggle to adapt to the conditions.
“Indian football is different and it is difficult as well. The teams are very competitive. Each team on their day can beat the table toppers. Since I play for Mohun Bagan I understand that teams are more motivated when they play against us. Moreover, some of the pitches are too hard and are not very good. The weather is also very unpredictable. In some parts of the country, it is very hot and in some, it is very cold. It is difficult to adapt but now I have completely adjusted to my surroundings,” he explains.
Taking a walk down the memory lane Beitia further tries to explain where India is lacking in the footballing scene. Hailing from San Sebastian he feels that football is very much a part of life back in his native place. The bastion of Sociedad, children take to football from a very early age in the Basque town.
“In Europe, we start at six years in a professional setup. The Indian players are good. There are some great technical players as well. But the main problem is they learn things at a later stage than European players. That makes the difference. But the scene is improving here in India as well.”
Beitia is the linchpin of Mohun Bagan. He controls the momentum of a match and his excellent vision helps him find spaces even if the opposition has managed to stitch a well-knit backline. But in spite of his heroics at the centre of the park, Bagan are yet to win a silverware. They were beaten by Gokulam Kerala in the Durand Cup final, were runners-up in the Calcutta Football League (CFL) and crashed out in the semi-finals of the Sheikh Kamal International Cup in Bangladesh to eventual winners Terengganu FC of Malaysia. Yet Beitia is hopeful that his team can turn around their fortunes in the upcoming I-League.
“We have lost tournaments by narrow margins. And although in football winning is the most important thing, I must say that we played good football in all the competitions. But something did not work for us. Maybe we are a new team and it takes time to build an understanding. I-League gives us an opportunity to mend that record and hopefully we win the title. It is the most important tournament.”
One of the primary reasons for failing to win each of the three competitions was Bagan’s fitness or the lack of it. The maroon and greens struggled in the final quarter of most matches in CFL and this continued to plague them in Bangladesh as well. But Beitia refuses to buy into the argument that the team was not in the best possible shape
“I don’t agree that we were not physically up to the mark. Now, we have played 20 odd matches and we are definitely in better shape than before. But it does not mean we were not at 100 per cent in the previous tournaments. It’s good that we have started so early because right now we are ready to play I-League mentally, physically and technically,” asserts the former La Real campaigner.
But it is kind of an anti-climax for a player who was once regarded as a prodigy and rubbed shoulders with World Cup-winner Griezmann to end up in India. But Beitia does not want to dwell in the past. He knows that he has to play an instrumental role in Kibu Vicuna’s system if Bagan have to challenge for the title.
“I am happy where I am today. I played in the second division in Spain. I don’t know if I could have played in the Premier Division. It is in the past. It doesn’t matter much. Now I am in India and I will give my best for Mohun Bagan. To not have money for me and my family, that is pressure. Football is my love, life, and everything. I don’t feel any pressure even if I am playing in front of a packed stadium. I take it as a privilege. To not have money for me and my family that is pressure (laughs),” chirps the new heart-throb of the millions of Mohun Bagan fans.
It has been a couple of seasons since the century-old club has won a major national tournament. Marquee players have come and gone but apart from a local league win in 2018, the team has failed to give the supporters anything significant to cheer for. But the teeming millions are daring to dream again of glory days ahead. And Joseba Beitia happens to be the one who has rekindled their hopes.