Farukh Choudhary has attempted many bicycle kicks in his Indian Super League career but the one he pulled off against Bengaluru FC earlier this season, generated quite the chatter on social media. Choudhary’s attempt was saved by Bengaluru FC glovesman Gurpreet Singh Sandhu but the sight of an Indian striker pulling off such cheeky and bold moves on the field warmed the hearts of many fans.
“I don’t know what happened on social media but people just went crazy about it. That was the most exciting moment for me,” Choudhary told Scroll.in.
The dynamic forward has raised his game this ISL season, scoring one goal and chipping with four assists. He has grown in stature in the past few years and has been part of the Indian senior national team set-up under both Stephen Constantine and Igor Stimac, offering a different alternative with his guile and versatility.
Choudhary was never meant to be a striker. In fact, he was never likely to be a footballer.
A middle-distance runner at Fatima High School, he only switched to football once he missed out during an inter-school marathon. As a footballer, he initially played as a centre-back but his school team coach Evaristo Cardoz converted Choudhary into a striker.
“I don’t know why my coach made me a striker but I was shocked. Maybe he saw that I had the potential to score goals,” Choudhary said.
Handling rejection as a pre-teen
Raised in the outskirts of Mumbai in Ambernath, Choudhary’s dreams of making it as a professional footballer received a huge blow at an early age when he failed to make the U-15 trials for now-disbanded Mumbai FC as a 12-year-old.
During the trials that went on for three-four months, his father would be the only one to accompany him four times a week as the young boy would travel from Ambernath to Mumbai, more than 50 kilometers away. Choudhary had initially made the reserve squad of 26 for Mumbai FC, then coached by Khalid Jamil, but was left out of the final 20.
“It was heartbreaking not only for me but also my family because of the travelling, but I never gave up,” Choudhary said.
Such disappointment would shatter hopes for any youngster but Choudhary found joy in football. And eight years later, he would eventually be selected by Mumbai FC.
His cause was greatly helped by his mentor and guide in Cardoz, who took his pupil under his wings at Diamonds Football Club just two months after Choudhary had started playing football. While other coaches wouldn’t let him train as he was a scrawny and feeble boy, Cardoz would make Choudhary play alongside footballers who were nearly thrice his age.
“Diamonds club has a very big part to play in my football career and I’ve grown very quickly by playing with such mature players,” he said.
He would train twice – morning in the school and with the big boys from Diamonds in the evening. Defender, attacking midfielder, defensive midfielder, winger, striker – Choudhary learned to adapt to multiple positions alongside polishing his skills.
“I was taught at Diamonds to play two-touch football,” he said. “That’s where I developed my vision and decision-making. People may not know about it, but there’s still a lot of craze for football in Ambernath. There are many talented players but the only thing they lack is professionalism. That is obvious because of infrastructure but there are hardly any clubs like Mumbai FC who local footballers can look up to. There is Mumbai City FC now but we need more teams.”
Choudhary won the state and division titles in Ambernath and starred in the league there before being selected by Air India’s U-15 side. He later represented Central Bank of India in the Mumbai District Football Association for one season before joining Pune FC’s renowned academy – his first professional stint as a footballer. It was there that Choudhary first started adapting to the role of a winger under Naushad Moosa.
When Pune FC shut shop in 2015 due to a financial crunch, Moosa advised him to turn up for Lonestar Kashmir in the second-division I-League where he also played for Jammu & Kashmir in the Santosh Trophy. He then signed for Kerala Blasters, but when Choudhary made the switch to the ISL, he knew that he needed to work more on his game as a winger due to cut-throat competition for Indian strikers.
“I couldn’t just sit and cry that I’m not getting to play my position. So I tried gaining experience as a winger,” Choudhary said, reflecting on his stint with Blasters. “It was important for me to play rather than sit out. It was difficult at first because I’ve played very few games [as winger] and the movements didn’t come naturally to me.”
Keeping it simple
A tearaway winger, Choudhary’s game was such that he would be itching to do something with the ball all by himself rather than work for the team. At Blasters, he didn’t receive many opportunities to adapt as a winger but when he earned his first call-up to the Indian team for the U-23 SAFF Cup in 2018, he realised that he needed to keep things simple.
“I used to see wingers in the ISL and think, how are they playing like this? Just taking the ball and passing it. I mean, do something with it man,” he said. “When you are young, you’re so desperate that you want to do skills with the ball but not something that is useful for the team. That’s what is immaturity.”
Jamshedpur FC have changed as many as three managers in three season so far in the ISL, but Choudhary has emerged as a mainstay for the Men of Steel. With his relentless work rate, ability to anticipate danger around the box and make good movements, the young forward has grown.
“The coaches at Jamshedpur used to tell me, play simple and try not to complicate your game,” he said. “It has taken time for me to understand that football should be played simple and that’s the most difficult thing to do. Honestly, this is the year where I understood more about it.”
Under Stimac, Choudhary made the cut for the King’s Cup and the Intercontinental Cup but was not selected for India’s World Cup qualifying campaign. The youngster went back, worked on his game and won the Croatian’s trust back with eye-catching performances in the ISL this season, being selected for World Cup qualifiers against Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
“I have played as a striker and also as number 10 under Stimac. He too wants me to play simple [football] – take the ball, pass and wait for your chance in the area where you can score. That’s my job,” he said.
“It’s not easy competing with Sunil Chhetri and Balwant Singh but Stimac has reminded me that I have the potential. I need to play more direct and when the team needs me, do something with the ball,” he explained.
Choudhary has also received his share of criticism. His defensive work-rate has improved but the youngster has been guilty of squandering chances in front of goal, an aspect for which he is constantly under the scanner. But the 23-year-old loses no sleep thinking about social media critics.
“You should never try to handle these things and if you do, the fans will kill you,” Choudhary said.
“I don’t care. They [fans] don’t know how much I work. People see I missed chances but there are few who actually get in the right places and create them. Fans who are passionate won’t know all these things. I understand their emotions,” he added.
On an upward learning curve, Choudhary has managed to convert some of his naysayers into admirers and he is going from strength to strength. The journey has been complicated but simplicity is now the mantra for the boy who is making Ambernath proud.