The daring of Darren: The rare sportsman who won't 'stick to sports'

Darren Caldeira in action for ATK during the ISL in 2018 Luke Walker / ISL / SPORTZPICS

Such are the times we live in that apprehension builds up even as this is being typed. Is talking about Darren Caldeira actually being detrimental to Darren Caldeira? Will it call attention to an athlete already swimming outside his lane, against the tide, doing way more than his required 'hard yards'?

To those who don't follow Indian football, Caldeira's name has more recall for what he's done off the field in the past six-odd months: speak his mind on issues outside his colourful but restricted professional terrain.

Indian sport breathes an atmosphere of silence around the big social or political issues. The majority of India's athletes, particularly those who depend on the government for jobs, promotions and awards, tend to steer clear of matters outside their domain. Not Caldeira, who has joined cricketer Irfan Pathan, winter Olympian Shiva Kesavan, fellow footballers CK Vineeth and Rino Anto and badminton player Jwala Gutta as athletes who will not 'stick to sport.'

Caldeira, 32, first spoke out in the winter of 2019-20 through his Twitter handle to support public protests against the controversial citizenship amendment laws, and after students in Delhi were attacked by the police and tear-gas was fired into a college library.

That incident, Caldeira said, was what prompted him to speak out instead of his usual practice of retweeting or 'liking' others' posts calling out hate speech and violence. "When the students were getting physically assaulted, I was like, this is too much."

"There was a time earlier, while growing up, when I didn't show a lot of interest in politics," he says. "I didn't really bother. To a certain extent I understand why we want to just let things be." Yet, today, he says the fallback of being "apolitical" is "not a luxury anymore," regardless of the toxicity of the trolls and the social media backlash.

As his Twitter profile says, he believes his conscience is his guide. "If you look at whatever is happening in the country, we definitely don't have the luxury of not bothering and not caring, [saying] whatever's happening is happening." He would have done the same, he says, even if he'd been a regular guy in a regular job. "It's just who I am. If it's bothering me, it's bothering me and I have to stand up and speak up for the right thing."

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Being a professional footballer (he's currently out of contract in the football off-season), a public person even if modestly known, makes it more necessary, he feels, to make best use of his position. "I even feel like God has given me a certain platform. A couple of hundred people know me as a person and as a professional, and if I have got this platform... Sometimes, we say 'Oh, go and kill it on the field, express yourself there.' But I feel like you need to show what it's all about, maybe express yourself even outside of that. Not just a football field."

It might be a big call in these times but Caldeira will stand by it because of how and where he grew up and the beliefs that instilled in him. He's a '90s kid from a suburban housing complex called Takshila, in Mumbai's Andheri East, 30-plus apartment blocks packed with a diverse mix of residents. He was one of hundreds of Takshila children who played sport - cricket all year round, plenty of football in the rain - and dived into celebrating each other's festivals through the year.

Perhaps it was what happened next that cemented his beliefs: He holds a bachelor's degree in sociology, his growing football prospects dragging him away from a BSc course (the route to the merchant navy, his dream job) and lab practicals at Wilson College. It was the physical and mental drill, he says, of trying to submit assignments on time, take exams and play semi-pro football as a teenager (on consecutive days on more than one occasion), that helped him grow. "Education, studying, makes you well-rounded; you may not learn so much from the book but you meet different people, pick up things. It helps."

With India's public discourse around him changing, Caldeira held on to the memory of that childhood and a future he seeks for children around him, including those he, a Christian married to a Hindu, hopes to have. "The kids that I know now, 20 years down the line they will be like, all this was happening and what were you doing... I don't want my own children, to ask, Papa, what you were doing when all this happened."

Caldeira is in some ways an accidental professional; while his school, St Dominic Savio, had a solid football programme, he dreamt of joining the merchant navy only to find himself at a Mahindra United junior trial just because his best friend needed company. As an 18-year-old he spent a year in Spain on a scholarship training at Cracks CF, a youth academy affiliated with Valencia CF. Caldeira says he was "half-decent" enough to be promoted up its grade teams, played in local competitions, earned weekly wages, learnt Spanish and lived in a small town north of Valencia.

He chose to return home despite a supportive coach; once the year's scholarship was up, neither his modest football earnings nor his family could have sustained him. He said goodbye to the merchant navy and made up his mind. "I said I'm going to go back to India and make football a career." After starting out with the Mahindra youth team, Caldeira had stints at many of the country's major clubs - Air India, Bengaluru FC, Mumbai FC, Chennai City, Mohun Bagan, Kerala Blasters.

Curiosity about the world has expanded his universe beyond football. Caldeira is an avid online reader and viewer about everything that interests him, culture, society, politics and humankind's endless battle against injustice.

His heroes and role models today are men of both caliber and mettle: Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, and he speaks with enormous respect of Irfan Pathan and Marcus Rashford for stepping outside their sport. "You can see the backlash Irfan Pathan is getting at the moment. He is somebody the entire country knows - he can choose to keep quiet, but he is making a choice and saying, Listen, I am speaking up and I will deal with whatever."

Rashford's open letter to British MPs to reconsider providing free meals to vulnerable children led the Prime Minister to overturn a government decision to cancel school meals during the holidays.

"He [Marcus Rashford] is 22 and he just said, let's do this, in the nicest way possible. To make this possible he tried to make the government understand how he was once someone in a similar situation in need of those meals."

Caldeira understands why some stars don't speak up because of repercussions, including their fears over their family's safety. "I totally put myself in their shoes. There will be the troll army attacking them, you don't know what cases will be filed against them, they have a lot to lose," he says and then adds, "First of all I'm not even in that bracket, I'm just your average guy, but I can't just see things happening in front of me and say it's fine. I need to be sleeping at night knowing that I did the right thing. Otherwise, it would just eat me up."

Naturally, people around him are worried. His footballing colleagues and people who know his family send messages asking Caldeira to 'calm down', 'take it down a notch' and he continues to have DM arguments on his Twitter timeline. He says he is always civil but, "the more we shut up and not say anything, it's only going to get worse and that's why they are trying to silence everyone."

He understands there could be professional consequences for speaking out, like not getting a contract or being ostracised by the community. "I have thought about it a few times, but, like I said, it's a choice you make. I feel the need to voice my opinion and I'm sticking with it."

In an age of information overload, he accepts that a lot of news is "very sad and toxic" but it is clear Caldeira has chosen to move away from the choice many competitive Indian as well as overseas athletes take - of living inside what seems like a bulletproof sporting bubble. "You can't just be haan, theek hai [everything's fine], I'm in my 3BHK house with the air-conditioner on, food's available, the telly's on and everything is fine. It's not fine. There is a lot that is happening right outside, maybe on your doorstep."

Then Darren Caldeira, average guy, football pro, 3037 Twitter followers, stereotype-slayer, clarifies that he is living on rent in a 1bhk - and laughs.