It is not often that there is a sense of the unknown when a top Indian club signs a 22-year-old Indian centre forward, but then Ishan Pandita isn't your average 22-year-old Indian centre forward. As FC Goa get ready for a new season that has seen major change sweep through one of the ISL's more stable clubs, their new signing -- Pandita -- is one of the most eagerly anticipated arrivals in the league's short history.
We know the headlines. Pandita moved to Spain six years ago. Four years ago, he became the first Indian to sign a professional contract with a La Liga side (Leganes' U-19 team). And... that is about it.
Footage from the Spanish third and fourth divisions is not readily available, even for the die-hard fans, so there is nothing concrete for Indian football on which to base its opinion of him. What is there are reports, some flattering, even bordering on hyperbole, some not so much. So now, either to raise him to superstardom or to pull him down, everyone seems to be seeking the same answer -- 'just what makes this lad so special?'
Come November, they will all have a chance to find out.
The thought of it doesn't fluster Pandita. Cheeks dotted with a little stubble, Pandita looks relaxed as he speaks to reporters on video conference from quarantine in Goa. "I think the fact that I'm here with such a big name and I've seen the stuff people are writing... I do feel there will be added pressure, added scrutiny, but I'm not worried about that," he smiles.
"I am ready, I am confident," he says. And he looks it. "The coach [Juan Ferrando] and the management don't make decisions out of nowhere, so they have done their research in Spain. All the reviews and everything he'd seen -- he was confident, and ready to take me in."
This pressure isn't new to him. Having moved to Spain in 2014, aged just 16, he stuck it out in the country, working through the lower leagues, hoping to catch the kind of break that a footballer sometimes needs to make it big. It took him a year to grow over his homesickness (and the tears that came with it) to adjust properly -- UD Almeria's youth system giving him the perfect platform. "I was performing well, there was a lot of attention. It was good and that's when I felt like I really became one with the system," he says.
When Leganes signed him in 2016, the hype hit fever pitch, for this could well have been that big break. But he got injured, and slowly slipped off the mainstream radar. "When I went to Leganes, all the expectations skyrocketed, and then I got hurt and I just disappeared for a while. Mentally, it was very tough. I was tired, and frustrated about why I couldn't get it together," he says softly.
Those initial struggles were compounded by a move to a club where he "didn't get along with the coach." He hardly played and it was looking bad when he got a move to Lorca. There, it all changed.
When you think of football in India, you think of Kolkata, Kerala, Goa
Under Walter Pandiani -- a Uruguayan forward who made his name with Deportivo La Coruna (Super Depor, back in the day), Osasuna, and Espanyol among others -- Pandita rediscovered his love for the game. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be sitting here right now. He actually changed me as a person, as a player," says Pandita. "He was a striker as well, a legend in Spain. We would go after training and spend hours -- just him, me and a goalkeeper. He'd teach me a few things, he'd be hard on me. He treated me like a son."
With that return to form came the thought of moving onward, upward. "Spain was getting a bit complicated for me, personally, with the whole COVID situation and it was getting a bit difficult for me to find a team at a very good level," he says. Which is when the ISL came calling.
Many clubs were interested, but Pandita says it wasn't a tough call. "When you think of football in India, you think of Kolkata, Kerala, Goa," he says, before explaining his decision. "To be honest, the coach was very interactive with me, we spoke a lot. We had a conference with the coach, with Ravi [Puskur, Goa's director of football]. I didn't get that kind of attention from any other club. The coach even met me, we went for a breakfast in Barcelona, we had a coffee and just, the interest was there. It just felt so real."
It didn't hurt that the coach's philosophy, or 'ideology' as Pandita calls it, fitted in with the school of thought he had immersed himself in for the past six years. Nor did the Spanish signings they had made, or the fact that Goa will play in the AFC Champions League this coming season.
The Spanish signings excite, rather than worry, Pandita. Partly because, he says, "I'm here to compete with whoever. I have been competing with Spaniards since I was 16." And partly because he understands the opportunities that the 3+1 foreigner rule will throw up. And based on his new coach's promise that starting places will be based purely on performance, he's confident of getting the chance to prove himself.
For now, Pandita sits in the Hilton DoubleTree, Arpora, exercising using the weights and bands the club has provided, waiting to join assistant manager Clifford Miranda and the club's Indian players as they begin pre-season training at the Ella Ground in Old Goa. He can't wait for November, when he can show India what the fuss is all about.