Rahul Bheke was sat at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai, not too far from his house in Nerul, watching the Indian Super League final between Kerala Blasters and ATK (now ATK Mohun Bagan) in December 2014. It was the ISL's inaugural edition and Bheke, 23 at the time and playing at Mumbai FC, wondered if he'd ever play at such a level.
Fast forward four years and Bheke leapt over the FC Goa defence to score a looping header and propelled Bengaluru FC to its maiden ISL crown. It was a special one for Bheke, playing in his hometown and scoring the title-clinching goal.
Cut to 2022 and Bheke would score yet another thunderous header, this time in Saudi Arabia and in Mumbai City FC colours, to become the first Indian footballer to find the goal in the AFC Champions League. Bheke's 75th-minute header against Iraq's Al Quwa Al Jawiya (Air Force Club) also made Mumbai the first Indian club to win an AFC Champions League (ACL) match, Asia's premier club footballing competition. Bheke and headers - a tried and tested recipe for a piece of history.
Speaking to ESPN, Bheke is over the moon and understandably so - the Mumbai boy leads a Mumbai club to arguably the biggest win recorded by an Indian club in Asian football. "It is really special because I scored for my hometown team and at the stage where no other Indian has. I'm thrilled that we're the first Indian club to win an ACL game. To come back to play for a Mumbai club after six years and score a goal at such a big stage is.... a proud moment for me and I will make sure to build on this."
Ask him to reflect on the whirlwind journey that the past nine years have been, from that sultry December evening in Navi Mumbai to Riyadh's King Fahd International Stadium some 5000 km away, he says "lambi race ka ghoda hoon (I'm in it for the long haul)."
Bheke, traditionally a right back who now plays as a left centre-back for Buckingham's Mumbai City, says the win has given the side a license to dream of making it past the group stage. Mumbai City is now placed second in Group B, below Saudi Arabia's Al Shabab.
"Everyone's happy that we got the first win. Our performance in the first game gave us the confidence that we can do well if we kept playing like that and improved in the small details," he says. "We cut a cake and celebrated the win. The coach asked us to stay humble as we have four games to go. We're taking it one game at a time and it's important for us to win the next game as that will help us get closer to what we want - to reach the next round."
Bheke's close friends Shilton D'Silva and Abhishek Ambekar, who play for Rajasthan United in the ongoing I-League, wanted him to get on the scoresheet. "We hopped on to a video call before the game and Shilton said '90th-minute wala goal chahiye' (we want a last-gasp goal) and we spoke again today about how it actually happened!" Bheke had played with the duo during their formative years at Mumbai FC.
Bheke's move to Mumbai City last year was labelled as a homecoming. Bheke Ala Ghari (Bheke returns home) was the hashtag the club used to announce his arrival. Eight months on, the prodigal son came good. At the biggest stage of asking.