WHEN AFFAN Yousuf deflected a through-ball past Pakistan goalkeeper Amjad Ali in the 23rd minute of the final of the Asian Champions Trophy in Bhopal on Sunday, he brought the legacy of Bhopal back in the country’s hockey consciousness.
The 21-year-old forward scored India’s second goal in the 3-2 win over defending champions Pakistan, helping the team reclaim the crown they last won in 2011. But for Bhopal, and the Yousuf family, the goal meant a lot more.
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The Madhya Pradesh capital has produced a steady stream of players for decades. And one family, in particular, has played a pivotal role in ensuring that. Affan is the eighth player from his family to play hockey at a national or international level.
The family’s love affair with the sport goes back to the 1970s, when his grandfather Khuda Dad enhanced Bhopal’s reputation of producing forwards with mesmerising skills. In the 1980s, the baton was passed to Khuda’s nephew, and Affan’s father, Mohammad, who played as a left-winger for India at the 1985 junior World Cup and 1986 Bangkok Asian Games.
His brother Mohammad Pervez — playing for Bengal — was the highest scorer at a national championship in Bhopal and looked set for a promising international career. Tragically, though, he lost his left arm in an accident when he was 23. Affan’s two other uncles, Samsher (BHEL) and Feroz (Indian Airlines/Air India), are among the country’s most seasoned domestic players.
However, the family’s most prominent name is Sameer Dad, Affan’s uncle. Among India’s renowned forwards, Dad represented India at the Sydney Olympics apart from several other international matches. “But my mother’s reading of the game is sharpest. Perhaps it is because of all the years of watching us play,” says Sameer. “Affan’s elder brother Imran, too, has played a bit.”
With Sameer’s exit from the international scene — he is still active on the domestic circuit — the talent pool emerging from Bhopal seemed to have dried up. Until Affan burst on the scene three years ago, emerging as one of country’s most promising strikers.
Like his father, the 21-year-old is a natural left-winger. But his goal-scoring prowess is comparable to that of Sameer. “I played football initially, but my transition to hockey seemed natural. I have bunked exams to play matches. My father and uncle keep advising me on various aspects of the game. Hopefully, I will live up to the expectations of my family, teammates and coaches,” Affan had said earlier.
The Asian Champions Trophy was a litmus test for Affan. During his junior days, he showed an uncanny ability to pop up in gaps in the opponent’s ‘D’ and score goals with fancy stick work. His dodging skills are regarded highly by the coaches he has played under.
While that’s what set him apart in the domestic circuit, it became a pitfall every time he was considered for the national team. Gregg Clark, who coached the junior national team in 2013, was among Affan’s biggest fans. But in a team set-up, Clark had said, Affan lacked maturity.
Players from Bhopal have a typical style of play — they tend to thrive on one-on-one situations, dribbling being an integral part of their game.
But in the last two years, India started playing more of a pass-and-move game, and Affan wasn’t able to adapt to the team’s style. Soon, he had to make way for players who were more suited to the team’s style, even if they weren’t as talented as him. He was picked for the senior team just once, at the World Hockey League Final in 2014. And, although he remained a part of the national camp, there were fears his promising career would never take off.
But injuries to key players, such as S V Sunil and Manpreet Singh before the Asian Champions Trophy handed him a second chance. And this time, Affan served up a reminder of his abilities, scoring four goals in seven games.
“He played well. He has worked hard in the last two years to merit a place in the squad and has shown he can score goals when the team needs it. He can take heart from this performance,” says chief coach Roelant Oltmans.
Oltmans’s words will be reassuring for Affan, but he wouldn’t be expecting bouquets from his family upon his return.
Sameer says dinner conversations have often revolved around the mistakes made by the player, rather than just the good parts. “The most I felt pressure was when India’s matches were televised because everyone in the family would watch, and point out the smallest of mistakes rather than praise you,” says Sameer.
“I am sure Affan would be feeling the same way. But his goals have reminded people of Bhopal hockey. So I am sure they will be lenient on him.”