Ashok Mondal, a football coach, was on his regular walk across a playground when he saw a six-year-old child dribble the ball past older boys and girls at a speed that isn’t normally associated with kids at that age.

Mondal, who trains kids in West Bengal’s Bandel town for free, was quick to see the spark of a potential star in the child who was busy enjoying himself with a ball at his feet, with little care for his surroundings.

Almost a decade later, the boy, answering to the name Abhijit Sarkar, has proved Mondal right by breaking into the Indian squad for the Fifa U-17 World Cup on back of a strong work ethic and an ability to shut everything out once the ball is at his feet.

Born in Bandel, a town situated 40 kilometres away from Kolkata, Abhijit is the only child of Haren and Aloka Sarkar. Haren is a van-rickshaw driver while Aloka binds bidis (cigarettes) together at a grocery shop. They still live in a makeshift house situated near the famous Bandel church.

“His family was so poor that they could not afford to buy him a simple jersey, forget about the shoes,” said Mondal, as he started to recount Sarkar’s journey from the small town to the national squad.

An inspiring struggle

“I knew he was a good player the first time I saw him play with his friends,” he added. “Then, I began training him and made sure that he got the basics of the game right. I took him for a local tournament in Bandel and he played superbly.”

However, Sarkar and his coach knew that the quest to become a professional footballer wasn’t an easy one. “We don’t have proper football grounds here so we used to train at grounds where kids used to play cricket as well,” said Mondal. “I took him to nearby places such as Chandannagar to play. He played a lot of tournaments.”

Sarkar’s father Haren is grateful to Mondal for seeing what he and his wife would have surely missed given their daily life struggles.

“When he was very young, my younger sister and her friends took him to play football,” said Haren. “She took him to the nearby ground and it became a regular thing for them. One day his coach Ashok Mondal saw him play and told us that he can be really good at this sport. He started training him since then.”

The family was so poor that they couldn’t afford basic equipment such as shoes and jerseys, among other things, for Sarkar who had found his calling.

“We have seen horrible days,” said Haren. “There were days when there was hardly any money to spare or proper food to it. We lived in utmost poverty. We were really poor and only we know how we survived. Days are better now.”

It was Mondal and Sarkar’s uncle who made sure he had the equipment required to pursue his dream. “It has been a real struggle,” said Mondal. “I chipped in along with his uncle to buy his equipment. We used to buy him shoes, leg pads, basic stuff.”

Sheer willpower

But never during his days of struggle did the thought of quitting come to Sarkar’s mind. He went on to represent West Bengal at the sub-junior national championship, where the Indian selectors spotted him and was eventually picked to train at the All India Football Federation Academy in 2013.

“He went to Kolkata for trials for the AIFF academy,” said Mondal. “From there he went to Goa as well and then there was no looking back. He is very friendly and he respects everyone. He has immense willpower and never got bogged down by any situation.”

Mondal added that he had to keep Sarkar focused as he wasn’t confident of making the cut when he joined the camp. “He was not confident of making it to the squad initially because he wasn’t performing well. But I knew he had the caliber and would make the team. I feel so happy when he wears the No 10 jersey [for the Indian team]. When he got the jersey I knew he was going to play. I told all my friends and family that my student will play the Fifa Under-17 World Cup.”

Parents to miss Friday blockbuster

While the selection is definitely a reason for celebration, Sarkar’s parents will not be travelling to New Delhi to watch him play.

“We won’t be travelling to Delhi because his mother is not keeping well,” said Haren. “She has viral fever. It is nothing to worry about though. I feel so happy. Everyone is happy here now. When I will see him on television I won’t be able to express my happiness to you, even his mother to be honest. We are proud of our son.”