There was a lot Rino Anto expected from Kolkata when he first ventured to the city as a budding footballer. In time, however, the city would betray his trust. A second stint at Mohun Bagan in 2013 — after a failed first attempt in 2008 — came at a time when the club was embroiled in the Saradha scam. The subsequent financial setback saw the club release him from his contract prematurely, unable to pay the defender his salary.
Ironically, the city that dumped him two years ago broke the bank to script his third return. On Friday, the right-back completed a circle after being picked up by Atletico Kolkata for Rs 90 lakh, a huge sum up from the Rs 17.5 lakh base price. In effect, Anto’s signing saw the biggest jump in the first ever footballer auction in the country.
The 27-year-old experienced what he calls the ‘darkest days of his career’ when he was forced to leave Mohun Bagan. “Football was all I knew, but there was no I-League team that wanted me at the time. I had no option but to return home to Kerala and look for something there,” he says. Even back home in Thrissur, lower level football clubs were all that was available, none of which had much scope of making it to the top division. “I had played for many years in the first division so going down didn’t seem right. But I had no option. I was out in the wilderness and those were hard days,” he adds.
Career reviving move
The time spent in Kerala saw him play for the state’s Santosh Trophy squad the same year, leading them to the final where they lost on penalties to Services. His performances there, though, caught the attention of the newly formed Bengaluru FC, who invited him for a trial. “Moving to Bangalore revived my career. Things fell into place as soon as I made it to the team, and I could feel my game improve steadily,” he asserts.
While at the new club, Anto established himself as the first-choice right back in the Ashley Westwood-coached outfit, as well as making the position his own in the national team. His journey in the sport though started in Thrissur itself, albeit, the memories of getting into the game do not provide many encouraging thoughts. His parents introduced him to the game, constantly pushing him to attend the 4 am practice sessions.
Yet at the same time, there was an even high emphasis on academics. “They wanted me to play football, but they threatened to pull me out of the camps if my grades fell down. So it became very hard to get good grades and also become one of the better players in my team,” he recalls.
The pressurising, dual-emphasis on academics and sports is something he broadly associates with his home state. “It’s tough on players, which is why there haven’t been many big name players coming up from there,” he says, adding that IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri were the last two prominent players to rise from Kerala – both incidentally hailing from the same area as Anto.
After an impressive stint with the Kerala U-16 team, he secured a spot at the Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur. Two years on, he was picked by Mohun Bagan – his first ever move to Kolkata.
From helping his parents in their poultry farm, to fighting the pressure they soon imposed on him, on the day of the auction Anto again found himself in a nerve-racking position. During the auction, whenever a franchise would attempt to outbid the others, Anto’s nervousness became much more apparent. “I kept shuffling in my seat every time I saw a raised paddle. I didn’t know what to think. There was so much suspense. Where would I go and for how much kept going through my mind,” he explains.
Eventually it was the hefty Rs 90 lakh price that secured his services to the current champions. The last time he visited the city, he was merely a footballer. In that time between, he’s managed to win the I-League in his first year at Bengaluru FC and the Federation Cup in the recent season. “I’m going back as a champion, to a champion side,” he smiles.
‘A third homecoming,’ he calls it, as he fondly clutches the replica Atletico Kolkata jersey with his name printed on the back. “That’s where I started in the I-League, and now the ISL,” he concludes.