Kolkata: Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) defender Arnab Mondal attributes his superlative performances in the Indian Super League (ISL) to the improved facilities in the inaugural tournament and says the enhanced infrastructure should be replicated in tournaments like the I-league and the Federation Cup for Indian football to rise in FIFA rankings.
Languishing at the 171st spot (out of 209) in global rankings, Indian football is at its lowest ebb and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) launched the ISL with the objective of ushering in a fresh wave of interest in the world's most popular sport in a country dominated by cricket.
The efforts witnessed a marked improvement in off-field infrastructure and Mandal lauded the professionalism that characterised the ISL, which he said was earlier lacking in Indian football.
"We won't get the same facilities in the I-league. If you have to really change something then change the whole of it," Mandal told IANS in an interview.
"Yes, professionalism has helped as it was a well managed league. We had to play matches at short intervals. Yet we never quite faced much inconvenience."
The 25-year-old also highlighted the need for a "grassroot development programme" and infrastructure uplift of the local clubs.
"We have to improve the standards of the local clubs, start grassroot programmes and develop the infrastructure; ISL is only there for three months in a year. For the bulk of the year, we have to remain content with facilities which are not as good," said the footballer who was recently involved in East Bengal's flop Federation Cup campaign.
Mandal said his own performance improved markedly in the superior infrastructure. He was one of the few Indian stars of the tournament and led ATK's triumphant march.
The talented defender first came into prominence in city club United SC and since then his stock has risen steadily as he made international appearances and become East Bengal's backline mainstay.
He forged a formidable central defensive pairing with Spaniard Josemi for ATK and was praised by coach Antonio Habas and marquee skipper Luis Garcia.
"ISL has given birth to a new Indian football. Mentally and physically it was a challenge for the players to play against their foreign counterparts. Greats of the game are coming to India to play for Indian clubs. No one could've thought about this before," he said.
"It is overall a platform for players like us, a platform that is recognised at the world stage," says Mandal, who took to football at the tender age of eight.
Mandal's exploits earned the praise of team co-owner and former Indian cricket captain Sourav Ganguly, who claimed that reigning La Liga champions and ATK co-owners, Atletico de Madrid, wanted the 1.79 m tall player in their ranks for the next season.
Though Mandal expressed happiness at this, he said he was completely unaware of the development.
"I have not had any talks with Atletico Madrid. I know nothing about this."
The lanky footballer, who came up through Mohammedan SC's youth setup, also said that he benefited a lot from the ISL, getting the opportunity to work with "inspirational" Garcia and "perfect defensive leader" Josemi.
"We always looked up to him (Garcia) for inspiration. He encouraged the whole team every time we were down and out; he knew what to tell when, to boost our morale," he remarked.
"Josemi taught me a lot of things. Whenever he told me anything, I always listened very carefully, so that I could implement the skills on the ground when needed."
Coach Habas' aggressive strategies and animated character enthused energy in the team, he said.
"Habas was very aggressive. He always put the team ahead of any player; at team meetings he was a very animated character who would make sure we understood all his strategies."
After a bright start, ATK were in the news for the wrong reasons as reports of tantrums from Ethiopian striker Fikru Teferra and Garcia emerged. Mandal admitted those disruptive actions "unsettled" the players but credited the team management for handling the situation well.
"Yes we were a bit unsettled when such incidents took place, but we were mentally charged up by the coach to just focus on the game and play to our potential."