Footballers might get all kinds of life experiences, but Erik Paartalu’s first season with Indian Super League club Bengaluru FC is one of the more unique you’ll hear about.
“Once you've lived in India, there is nothing in life that can surprise you. Travelling to training, I see cows, goats, horses and wild dogs on the road and it's totally normal,” he tells the World Game. “Sometimes, when I arrive, there’s a cow at the entrance of our field. I’ve nicknamed him Bluey. “
It’s a far cry from the 31-year old’s last stop in the A-League with Melbourne City, where the towering midfielder prepared for matches in a manicured, world-class facility.
But the big game specialist – who famously scored the equaliser in Brisbane Roar’s 2011 grand final victory and the winner in the 2014 Melbourne Derby – is getting ready to make more history.
In their first season in the ISL after moving from the I-League, Bengaluru stormed away to finish on top of the table by eight points. They then saw off Pune City in the semi-final, winning 3-1 over two legs, setting up this meeting with Chennaiyin (managed by ex-Aston Villa boss John Gregory) to decide the championship in Saturday night's final.
“That grand final with the Roar was exactly seven years ago this week. It’s good timing to look back and remember how you should play in a finals game,” Paartalu said. “We would love to have a good finish to our season and to lift a trophy. These final series don’t always reward the teams who have finished on top, so we know what we need to do on Saturday night to make sure we are remembered in the history books.”
Winning will trigger a huge celebration in Bangalore, a city of 10 million people – and it will be a legendary Indian cricketer leading the charge.
“Our ambassador is Rahul Dravid, who is an absolute gentleman,” Paartalu said. “I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times. I’ve even been awarded a man of the match from him.”
“Our stadium holds 25,000 and we regularly get 20,000-25,000. The last two home games have been sold out, just as the final will be. In other parts of India, it varies. In Kerala for example, they will get an average of 37,000 but it was capped because of a safety risk. Last season they regularly got 50,000-60,000.”
“Many football franchises are backed by huge cricket stars, with Virat Kohli at FC Goa and Sachin Tendulkar at Kerala Blasters.”
As luck would have it, MS Dhoni is co-owner of Chennaiyin. But football’s version of Tendulkar is Sunil Chhetri, Paartalu’s teammate at Bangalore. He’s been in scintillating form all season, scoring a hat-trick in the semi-final and forming a telepathic understanding with Venezuelan international, Miku.
Between them, they’ve scored 27 goals of the team’s 35 goals in 20 games, relishing the attacking, possession-based style of ex-Barcelona assistant coach, Albert Roca – who has recruited five Spaniards, including former Western Sydney Wanderers captain, Dimas Delgado.
“Sunil Chhetri is in a league of his own in Indian football. There is literally no player close to him – I’d go as far as saying he’s better than 75 per cent of the foreign attackers here,” Paartalu said. “To be in the same dressing room has been an amazing experience. He is a “total captain” because he really epitomises what a leader should be.
“Miku is another that’s a cut above the rest of the league and with those two up front, it’s literally a case of getting the ball to them and watching the rest unfold.”
Paartalu has no doubts about the direction of the sport in his new home – where he just signed a new contract for a further two years – and admits the league has exceeded all expectations.
“Football in India is taking off. It’s certainly not at the level of some other Asian markets but in time it will be a powerhouse, I’m sure of it,” he said. “You only need to look at the national team’s ranking and how it has risen in the past two or three years. Their facilities have a little way to go but I can say every pitch we have played has been up to international standards. That surprised me the most, actually.
“From the money side of it, all I will say is that I couldn’t earn this money playing back home. When you incorporate bonuses and accommodation, you can’t compare it.”
Although his playing career sounds like the ultimate adventure, the former NSWIS graduate admits the ride hasn’t always been as fun as it is now.
“I had quite a difficult period in South Korea [with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors] and Qatar [at Al Kharaitiyat] was a bit unstable, so after the 2016 season, I was done – both mentally and physically,” he said. “I’d gone from the best club in Asia to being a free agent and it was quite scary. I had options in January and February but none I was willing to gamble with as another ‘pit stop’ in my career. I didn’t want to be stuffed around by agents or clubs again.
“But I’ve never been scared to make a jump to another country or another league. Coming to India was similar to when I signed with Muangthong in 2014. Everyone questioned what the hell I was doing. Yet years later, there have been many Aussies plying their trade in Thailand.
“I really hope that my presence here in India encourages foreign players, particularly from Australia, to come and play here. I can honestly say it’s been a wonderful experience. It’s one that I’m incredibly thankful for.”