The common refrain at the Aishbagh Stadium -- located in the heart of the central Indian city of Bhopal -- if you happen to be within earshot of animated spectators at a hockey match, is 'dodge karo, goal maro'(dodge and score a goal). The crowd knows a drive from a drag-flick, doesn't take back-passes too kindly and is generous in its profanities when it comes to a sloppy defensive line. Legend has it that four decades ago, a Railways team with nine Olympians in it lost a national match to a Bihar team and then had to run to the safety of their hotel rooms, skipping across railway tracks and leaving their equipment behind, to escape the ire of the spectators.
Hailing from this city, steeped in the legacy of the sport which can be spotted even in its most forlorn and dimly-lit street corner, 22-year-old Affan Yousuf never questioned its sustained presence in his life. With his father Mohammed Yousuf, grandfather Khuda Dad and uncle Sameer Dad having played for the Indian national team, Affan knew it would be a bit of an aberration had he picked anything other from hockey for a living.
Making his senior international debut two years ago under Terry Walsh, at the Hockey World League Final, Affan slipped away from the national horizon thereafter. Now, part of the Indian side currently away at the Asian Champions Trophy in Malaysia, he knows that this opportunity would be hard to let go without leaving an impression.
The pressure is crushing, admits the forward. "I have to perform," he says, "There's no other option." And Affan delivered on Asian Champions Trophy debut, scoring India's final goal in a crushing 10-2 win against Japan on October 20.
Few know his game as closely as a certain Vasudevan Baskaran, who led India to gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and coached both Affan and his uncle Sameer Dad. "Affan is a natural left winger and can strengthen the existing team," says Baskaran, "Like we saw in Rio, once SV Sunil was marked there's no play in the left zone and India has little option but to depend on penalty corners. That's where Affan comes in handy."
The transition from an outstanding junior to a reliable senior in Indian hockey has been a challenging one, and it hasn't been particularly smooth for the Bhopal boy. Chief coach Roelant Oltmans insists that while Affan had the talent, he was not picked earlier since his play lacked maturity and needed to adapt a lot more to the team style. "I had some performance issues," Affan concedes, "I think I needed time and experience to improve."
Stressing on the need for Affan to grasp the team's style of play and adapt his approach accordingly, Baskaran says, "Oltmans has changed some core ideas in the team, like not to lose the ball and to steer clear of wild passes even if there's no space in the forward line. And instead give it back to the defender and start over. That's something Affan should learn."
Starting out with football in school, Affan then switched to hockey and stayed put. During his early years, his father Mohammed Yousuf, who was a left-winger in the national side was his obvious choice for an idol.
He would soon find fresh inspiration in his uncle, Sameer. The uncle-nephew combine led the attacking line together for the Bhopal Badshahs, coached by Baskaran, in the World Series Hockey in 2012. Playing for Air India at the senior hockey nationals a year later, Affan and Sameer, then aged 19 and 34 respectively, scored four out of the six goals in the final against Hockey Punjab. "Playing alongside my uncle helped me learn a lot," says Affan, "That experience was special and will always stay with me."
Bhopal is known to have its own brand of hockey. Aside from their dodging skills, most players from the city are known to be natural left-wingers, who rely almost solely on taking on opposition players in one-on-one situations. The crowd, Affan reckons, isn't swayed by big names -- for them, the quality of play is all that matters. While earlier there was a steady stream of players from Bhopal in the national side, the numbers have dipped in the recent past. This is something that Affan himself ascribes to limited exposure, but his presence in the national setup can only benefit both the city and the player.
"Affan has all the skills to be a part of the core group of the present national side. In fact, the core group should ideally change every year and not remain the same for four years like in the present setup," says Basakarn, "Affan's dodges in particular are unbelievable. He's in fact a lot better than some of the current players like Ramandeep (Singh) and Nikkin (Thimmaiah)."
For now, Affan is keen to cement his place in the Indian side and carry forward the family legacy with his impact during the course of the Asian Champions Trophy, hoping to help India reclaim the crown they last won in 2011.
"I've found this opportunity after a long time," says Affan, "This is my chance to prove myself."