"If you want a future for yourself, fight and take it." That's what Vikrant Sharma, coach of Rajasthan United, told his players as they made their improbable journey to the I League.
"In 15 days, you cannot have a strategy. To have a proper playing style and strategy you need time. The only thing I installed in them was hunger."
It's a cliche, isn't it? The coach who tells his wards that you just have to "want it more", the underdogs that then click together on that one belief, a team that gets lifted to become more than the sum of its parts. There's a reason it's become a cliche, though. It works.
Like it did for Vikrant Sharma, a frank, straight-speaking ex-player (for Dempo and Churchill Brothers amongst others) and now coach. He took charge of newbies Rajasthan United, built them into a fighting unit and led them to victory in one of Indian sport's toughest-to-manoeuvre competitions, the I-League qualifiers. They are the first team from the state to qualify for a national league.
"That's all I did," he says. "I told them, 'If you want a future for yourself, fight and take it.'"
And boy, did they fight ever.
They ground out results where more fancied teams, with much more recognisable players in their ranks, couldn't. In the first stage, they won one and drew two of their three games. They scored five, conceded four. In the second stage, they won two and drew one, scoring three and conceding not one goal. Knowing a goalless draw was enough on the last day, they got just that against a much more fancied Kenkre FC.
"Hunger," repeats Sharma.
Prior to the qualifiers beginning he had asked his management just how serious they were about getting into the I-League proper. When he got the answer he had been looking for, he asked for the team to camp in Goa for a fortnight, where he arranged friendlies with former club Dempo and others.
"After those matches," he says. "I [was convinced], 'yes we do stand a chance' and things started falling in place." They were tough matches, and he was pleased with the fight his hastily put-together squad had put up. "People [who saw them play] would say the same thing... don't let the hunger die down." So he didn't.
It had been quite a hastily put together side, though. "When they had a local league, the R-League, we had to play 7 matches in 8 days," he says. They had finished second in that state league, behind Zinc FA on goal difference. Zinc, though, couldn't make AIFF's licensing criteria, and Rajasthan United were called up - at the very last minute. Within a day or two, they cobbled together a squad they could register for the qualifiers.
Sharma leaned on the contacts he had built over his years in football. "I was in touch with players [he had previously managed with Hindustan FC]. I also knew a few players from Punjab, through my sources."
It wasn't easy.
"It's tough to convince the players you want to hire that we have a bright chance of qualifying," says Sharma. "Everybody wants to play in a team where there's a base, where there's a structure. Everybody wants to play for a team which has a good chance of coming into the I-League. Now, everybody knows that Rajasthan is a state of no football, that there is no structure as such. So first of all, it was difficult to convince the players to come and play and that we are on an equal footing, that we have an equal chance."
He did quite the job convincing them, while simultaneously feeding them some home truths. "The whole scenario... The owners are doing it on their own. This we made very clear to the boys. I told them -- 'don't expect something very big now. Whatever limited resources, the owners are managing without sponsors, and we have to manage with that [budget and resources]. If you want to go one step higher, you have to fight on the field and take it.'
They took that step, and with it started another one of those patented I-League fairytales. The club from nowhere [purely in Indian footballing terms], started by a bunch of football-crazy men without any outside financial backing, going to compete with the big boys of their field.
They are not ready for it to end here yet, either. "We are just not going there to sustain ourselves, we are there to fight," promises Sharma. There's steel in his voice.
Rajat Gupta, co-owner of the club, meanwhile, is still working on processing it all. "We started with a residential school in Bhilwara in 2019, coming up to the state league this year," he says. "I was not expecting the results we got. There was no star signing, no star player in our club. There was no backing from sponsors, or even the state FA".
"In fact, till date there's no remark from the state FA that we've won the title and that we've made the state proud," he says with a bitter sigh.
It's complicated, he says, and there are numerous challenges ahead, not the least financial, but promises that they will be ready with a "better, bigger team", "one that will compete in the top-4 of the I-League."
As for Rajasthani football, suddenly thrust into the national footballing spotlight, Sharma is confident this is the booster shot that it so desperately needed. "I'm happy for the boys of the state. Instead of begging other clubs and other coaches to see them, now they have a platform of their own. They don't have to go to other states, spend money. In fact, we had a 'cadet' from our academy in the squad, Nikum, who's just 16!"
Even as they process the achievement, they are now working towards the next step. They may be smaller than everyone else, but if there's one thing that the rest of the I-League can bet on, it's that Vikrant Sharma and his Rajasthan United will have hunger in their bellies and a determination to make their presence felt. They better not take these freshers lightly.