'When you lose at East Bengal, the fans want to kill you'

Player Profile: Harmanjot Khabra (4:33)

Bengaluru FC's new signing Harmanjot Khabra tells us about his journey so far as a footballer and what he expects from his move to Bengaluru FC. (4:33)

"The players we had -- the first three matches we always won. After that, they got the Kanteerava (Stadium) and we also lost some players to injuries and suspensions. That's why they have beaten us after that. Defence makes you champions and they were the best there."

This was Harmanjot Khabra speaking to the press at the Bangalore Football Stadium, three days ahead of the start of the 2017 I-League. The "they" in the above quotes are Bengaluru FC, and "we" here refers to Khabra's former club East Bengal.

Khabra has played a key role in ensuring the Bengaluru defence is yet to concede a single goal, as well as supplying good balls for the attacking line, as he did with two precise assists for CK Vineeth, the first Bengaluru player to score a hat-trick, against Mumbai FC on January 18.

Khabra, 29, on his part, made an honest confession of how he felt a little out of place during the pre-season training at his first new club in the I-League in eight years.

"I have never imagined myself wearing any other jersey other than that of East Bengal. (Over the) first few days, when some updates would come about East Bengal, I would think maybe I was on some vacation," Khabra said.

"My family are attached to Kolkata, and my wife still wants to be in Kolkata. I have full respect for them and am very thankful to their management and supporters for helping me wear the jersey that so many greats have worn before. I have won everything over there, but the only thing missing is the I-League.

"I still remember the first year I signed with East Bengal. I was 21 in 2009 and the first year was a struggle, because even when I signed, it was basically in my mind that this is the team for me for the future. But everybody got criticised that year," said Khabra, who began his professional career with Sporting Clube de Goa after graduating from the Tata Football Academy, Jamshedpur in 2006.

"After one year, I felt this is my home and I have to be the best."

Khabra's time at the club saw East Bengal beat their own record of having won six successive Calcutta Football League titles, and he was given the captain's armband for the 2014 season. Two things characterised his stay in Kolkata -- Khabra came to be known as a utility player, as he says when remembering a match where he "played across seven positions on the field", and how he learned coping with the pressure of expectations from the unforgiving fans.

"At East Bengal, if you have done something good in one match, it doesn't mean that it is a closed chapter. You have to be ready to back it up with another good performance in the next game. You have to win every match, and within each match you have to win every ball."

East Bengal made three successive finals of the Federation Cup after Khabra joined - winning the first two - though the I-League title would remain elusive.

Under Trevor Morgan, East Bengal would finish runners-up to Salgaocar in the league, but Khabra's performance on his return from an injury in a come-from-behind 3-2 win against Dempo in May 2011 would prove to be vital. Not only did it ensure that his contract with East Bengal, set to expire within a month of that game, was renewed, but it also brought him a first call-up for India later that year, as Dempo coach Armando Colaco took the reins of the national team.

Khabra began his career as a central midfielder, before often playing a defensive role at both Sporting Clube de Goa and East Bengal. It was with Marco Matterrazi's Chennaiyin FC during the Indian Super League (ISL) that he began slotting in more as a wing-back, not an unusual pattern in the ISL which allows teams to field six foreigners, and coaches tend to rely more on Indian talent along the width of the pitch.

"If we approach the ISL with positivity, then we have a lot to learn from it. Perfection is something the management at Chennaiyin have always demanded - the perfect pass, the perfect off-the-ball movement, and the perfect lifestyle off the field. Those have been my biggest learnings, and I think that has helped build my character as a footballer."

Temperament was always a question raised of Khabra, especially with his efforts in helping Chennaiyin get the title in 2015 as he picked up red cards in two separate matches. He made 13 appearances, and only missed matches through suspension, but for Khabra aggression is an important part of his mental makeup as a footballer.

"I think if I will be calm, it will be bad for me. Everybody speaks about me whenever I am substituted that I had cards and all, and it happens. I'm not a kind of player who can dribble three players or be an individual match-winner. If the opponent has one player who is best at attack, I am there to stop him. He has to feel that I am there, and I like that."

Khabra will get his chance of meeting his old employers on January 22 at the Barasat Stadium, where Sunil Chhetri helped break a sequence of two successive away defeats for Bengaluru in January 2016. He is prepared for a tough battle in front of a partisan crowd, but eight seasons in Kolkata have steeled him for the experience.

"When there's a crowd in excess of 100,000 and your team is losing to an arch-rival due to a mistake by you, there's nobody to help you. You are all alone and facing the supporters.

"So many good players don't enjoy playing in the East Bengal ground. When you lose, they're going to kill you.

"I never run from these situations. They were my friends, but now they are my opponents this season."

The transition from "we" to "they" looks complete.