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He played against Pele, Best, Banks, now he wants to coach here

HOW many Indians can claim to have played against Pele, Beckenbauer, Best, Eusebio, Banks and Cruyff? Rajinder Singh Virdee can. As Roger Ve...

August 31, 2003

HOW many Indians can claim to have played against Pele, Beckenbauer, Best, Eusebio, Banks and Cruyff? Rajinder Singh Virdee can. As Roger Verdi, the name he adopted to avoid Western ‘‘prejudices’’, the Nairobi-born Sikh saw first-hand the skills of some of the best footballers of the mid-1970s while with the Montreal Alouettes in the North American Soccer League.

Now Verdi (51), who’s been coaching for several years, wants to return to India and work here. ‘‘Asia and Africa offer me a chance to bring my experience, knowledge and passion. Football is growing very fast in India. What they need are quality coaches, proper facilities, equipment. I would love to go to India.’’

The All-India Football Federation (AIFF), which has received Verdi’s application, doesn’t appear too interested. ‘‘We get a lot of applications regularly’’, says federation secretary Alberto Colaco. ‘’We have Stephen Constantine right now, and Dr Viktor Stanculescu as technical director. I can’t see anyone else fitting in at the moment.’’

Verdi — who lives in Texas, where he runs the Roger Verdi International Football Academy — is also open to club offers.

Well-known Indian coach Dereyk D’Souza welcomes the idea of Verdi’s experience and knowledge being exploited for India’s benefit. D’Souza says, ‘‘Football is catching on in a big way right now. If Verdi, who has played and seen football of a higher standard than all us Indian coaches put together, wants to come to India, I think the AIFF should help him.’’

Verdi has been living and breathing football since his family moved to England, when he was seven. ‘‘My youth career was going fine. When I was 14, a scout for Wolverhampton came to my house and signed me on an amateur contract. The dream of playing professionally began taking shape,’’ Verdi says.

The name change came around this time, when a friend’s father called him a ‘wog’. ‘‘I realised I was going to face a tough battle. I had to change my name. Roger was easy enough, Virdee became Verdi from the Italian composer.”

Notable experiences after that include being signed on by Sir Bobby Robson for Ipswich Town after an impressive trial at age 16. ‘‘An Ipswich scout took me for trials to Robson. He signed me straightaway. I was on a three-year contract with them and played for the youth team and seniors.’’

After the contract ran out, Verdi took up an offer to move to Canada, in hindsight a good choice given that it coincided with the start of the North American Soccer League. ‘‘Most of the big names came to the NASL around 1974-1978. I was playing for St Louis Stars, Montreal Alouettes and then San Jose Earthquakes. The most memorable moment was marking Pele in a game in 1975 at the Giants Stadium in New York in front of 70,000 fans.”

Another occasion he remembers is playing against Beckenbauer — ‘‘confident, totally arrogant.’’ It was, he says, a 90-minute lesson in football, ‘‘he made it completely simple.’’

When his career ended, he went into coaching with club sides tll he became director of US Youth Clubs in 1992. When he left, in 1999, he got for himself the Full International License Badge from the English FA to add to the ‘B’ licensefrom the US Soccer Federation.

Verdi has stayed in touch with Indian football which, he feels, needs greater exposure to modern methods of coaching.

About India’s biggest star, he says, ‘‘I know about Bhaichung; in fact, I tried to get in touch with him when he was with Bury FC in England. I didn’t get a chance to follow his game much, but I think the experience would have done him a lot of good.

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