It’s not often that there’s a sense of the unknown when a top Indian club signs a 22-year-old Indian center forward, but Ishan Pandita is not your average 22-year-old Indian center forward. As FC Goa prepares for a new season that has undergone major changes at one of the ISL’s most stable clubs, its newest signing, Pandita, is one of the most anticipated arrivals in the league’s short history.
We know the headlines. Pandita moved to Spain six years ago. Four years ago, he became the first Indian to sign a professional contract with a La Liga team (Leganés Under-19s). And that’s it.
The images of the Spanish third and fourth division are not readily available, even for die-hard fans, so there is nothing concrete for Indian football on which to base your opinion of it. What there are are reports, some flattering, even bordering on hyperbole, others not so much. So now, whether it’s to elevate him to stardom or to tear him down, everyone seems to be searching for the same answer: ‘what makes this guy so special?’
When November rolls around, everyone will have a chance to find out.
The idea does not make Pandita nervous. With his cheeks dotted with a small beard, Pandita looks relaxed as he talks to reporters in a video conference from the quarantine in Goa. “I think being here with such a big name and seeing the things that people are writing … I feel like there will be more pressure, more scrutiny, but that doesn’t worry me.” he smiles.
“I’m ready, I’m confident,” he says. And look at it. “Coach [Juan Ferrando] and the management does not make decisions out of nowhere, that is why they have investigated in Spain. All the criticism and everything I had seen, he was safe and ready to receive me. “
This pressure is not new to him. After moving to Spain in 2014 at just 16 years old, he stood his ground in the country, working in the lower leagues, hoping to take advantage of the kind of break a footballer sometimes needs to succeed. It took him a year to get over his nostalgia (and the tears that accompanied it) to adjust properly: UD Almería’s youth system gave him the perfect platform. “I was doing well, there was a lot of attention. It was good and that’s when I felt like I really became one with the system,” he says.
When Leganés signed him in 2016, the hype reached a fever pitch, because this could well have been that big jump. But he got injured and gradually went off the main radar. “When I went to Leganés, all expectations were triggered, and then I got hurt and disappeared for a while. Mentally, it was very hard. I was tired and frustrated that I couldn’t fix things,” he said. he says softly.
Those initial struggles were exacerbated by a transfer to a club where “he didn’t get along with the coach.” He barely played and looked bad when he arrived at Lorca. There, everything changed.
When you think of football in India, you think of Kolkata, Kerala, Goa.
With Walter Pandiani, a Uruguayan striker who made a name for himself with Deportivo La Coruña (Super Depor, in his day), Osasuna and Espanyol, among others, Pandita rediscovered his love for the game. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be sitting here now. In fact, he changed me as a person, as a player,” says Pandita. “He was also a striker, a legend in Spain. We went after training and spent hours, just him, me and a goalkeeper. He taught me some things, it would be hard on me. I like a son.”
With that return to form, came the idea of moving on, upward. “Spain was getting a bit complicated for me, personally, with the whole COVID situation and it was getting a bit difficult for me to find a team of a very good level,” he says. Which is when the ISL came to call.
Many clubs were interested, but Pandita says it was not a difficult decision. “When you think of football in India, you think of Kolkata, Kerala, Goa,” he says, before explaining his decision. “To be honest, the coach was very interactive with me, we talked a lot. We had a conference with the coach, with Ravi [Puskur, Goa’s director of football]. I didn’t get that kind of attention from any other club. The coach even welcomed me, we went to Barcelona for breakfast, we had a coffee and the interest was simply there. It just felt so real. “
It didn’t hurt that the coach’s philosophy, or “ideology,” as Pandita calls it, fitted in with the school of thought he’d immersed himself in for the past six years. Neither the Spanish signings they had made, nor the fact that Goa will play in the AFC Champions League next season.
The Spanish signings excite, more than worry, Pandita. Partly because, he says, “I am here to compete with anyone. I have been competing with Spaniards since I was 16.” And partly because he understands the opportunities the 3 + 1 foreigners rule will bring him. And based on his new coach’s promise that starting places will be based solely on performance, he is confident that he has a chance to prove himself. .
For now, Pandita sits at the Hilton DoubleTree, Arpora, working out with the weights and bands provided by the club, waiting to join assistant manager Clifford Miranda and the club’s Indian players as they begin preseason training at the Ella Ground in Old Goa. He can’t wait for November, when he can show India what all the fuss is about.