Just over a year ago, Sumit Rathi was plying his trade in the ATK reserve team in the Second Division League. Even though he was elevated to the first team at the start of the 2019-’20 Indian Super League season, the defender was definitely not the first choice in the starting XI. But by the time, the season ended with the Kolkata-based team clinching their third title, the Muzzafarnagar-born player had played a pivotal role in the campaign and was adjudged the Emerging Player for the Season.

And he had done all this playing in a position where Indians have struggled to receive opportunities in the league – central defence.

In the final against Chennaiyin FC alone, Rathi made 20 clearances as the visitors built pressure on the eventual champions who were protecting a lead for most parts of the game. ATK also saw their talismanic striker Roy Krishna limp off providing the opposition with an encouragement.

But Rathi stood between them and the goal and the ISL trophy and personal recognition were fitting rewards for his efforts after starring in the biggest game of his career.

Rathi featured in 14 games all season with his first appearance of the season coming back in November when he had to fill in for the injured Anas Edathodika at half-time against Odisha FC. As the season progressed, the Muzzafarnagar-born player made the position his own and went on to establish himself as a regular starter in a three-man defensive formation preferred by coach Antonio Lopez Habas.

“It was a memorable season for me,” Rathi told Scroll.in.

“Coach Habas had made it clear that you don’t get everything easy at a professional level and that I would have to fight for my place. He told me to work hard and wait, saying that my chance would come. So I was prepared that I will get the opportunity someday and when it comes, to show everyone that I’m good enough to play at this level,” he said.

Still, in the fledgling stage of his career, Rathi’s journey to the top has not been an easy ride. The theme of his journey has been about taking dejection in his stride and moving forward rather than dwelling on them.

From striker to defender

While Rathi has emerged as one of the few promising Indian centre-backs that have impressed lately, football was not his first-choice sport and when he eventually started playing the beautiful game, he lined up as a striker.

At DAV Public School in Muzzafarnagar, Rathi took part in cricket, volleyball and table tennis but when he topped an Intra-School Athletics Meet, the school’s football coach picked him to play up front. He was later converted into centre-back by coach Harjinder Singh when he joined the renowned Chandigarh Football Academy.

Rathi reveals the stint at CFA, gave him a taste of what professional football was all about.

“In India, everyone wants to be a striker so it was the same case with me,” he said.

“Coach Harjinder mentioned that I could develop into a good centre-back because of my height, physique and speed. He also told me that left-footed defenders are very rare, so I agreed.”

He added: “When I went to CFA, I did not know the basics. I started from the bottom. I would notice my peers were quite developed but it never crossed my mind that they were better than me. My focus was just on improving myself. Look at things that I could learn from them and apply that into my own game during my training sessions. That’s how my game evolved there.”

Turning disappointments into strengths

When CFA youngsters travelled to Goa for an exposure trip to face All India Football Federation’s U-16 team, Rathi was among the few boys from the academy that impressed federation’s scouts, alongside midfielder Amarjit Singh Kiyam (Captain of India’s U-17 World Cup team). That won him a place in the preliminary list for India’s U-17 World Cup probables but the defender missed out on the final squad.

“The rejection was very disappointing, not only for me but also for my family.

“At that age, it was very difficult to come to terms with it. But I had two options – to think that I never got a chance to feature and remain the same or use that as my motivation, work hard and prove my potential going ahead. I took that disappointment positively. It was the most difficult phase for me but also one that changed my career,” he added.

Setbacks continued to follow even after that phase. Rathi signed for AIFF’s developmental side Indian Arrows but never played a single match during the 2017-’18 I-League season. Confined to the sidelines, all that the defender focused on was his training regime and preparations for the season ahead.

“I never got chances at Arrows but that stint did not deter me.

“I took it positively that I am getting good coaching and training facilities. My mindset was just about bettering myself and being mentally prepared for next season. Not that I should be demotivated because I’m not receiving enough chances,” he said.

The craze and fandom surrounding Kolkata football convinced him to sign for the ATK reserves team in 2018, even if that meant playing in the I-League second division. What mattered to him, though, was receiving adequate game time under his belt.

“Upon signing for ATK, I had set a target of breaking into the first team during my first year itself,” he said.

“People there would tell me, ‘Your peers are playing in the I-League but why are you in the second division?’ So that was a big challenge. But what mattered was getting game time, whether it is I-League or the second division.”

Focusing on the present

Two years down the line, the move has successfully paid dividends. Although Rathi has been a regular feature in India’s junior squads, the next challenge for him is cementing his place in the senior team. With limited options in the centre-back position for coach Igor Stimac, the goal might not be too far-fetched but the teenager just wants to keep his feet on the ground despite a great season in India’s top division.

“The national team call-up is another big opportunity for me,” he said.

“Compared to before, teenagers would rarely get a chance to be selected in the senior team but now everything has changed. I’m not thinking too far ahead. I just want to improve myself and in the chances that I get, keep making the most of them.”

Turning disappointments into strength, Rathi is on the right path. And with a long journey ahead, he is only getting started.