Rahul Bheke says he got his hopes up when he learned earlier this month that Croatia's Igor Stimac had been appointed the new coach of the Indian football team. "When the ISL season ended, the news came in that the coach had been changed," says Bheke. "I felt if the new coach is there, I could get a call-up [for the national camp] and I should be ready."
Considering his performances in recent years, it's a bit of a surprise that Bheke should feel there was still some doubt over his selection. While the 28-year-old Bengaluru FC defender looked at ease in the red India training jersey at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Tuesday evening, it was remarkable to think that this was his first time in those colours.
Bheke was one of the standout performers for his ISL side with a record of three goals, one assist, 43 tackles, 26 interceptions, 96 clearances and 31 blocks, but the fact remains that he simply didn't seem to feature in the plans of India's previous coach Stephen Constantine.
Indeed, Bheke wasn't even named in India's 50-man longlist for the AFC Asia Cup. Even Sunil Chhetri remarked on the seeming unfairness of Bheke's exclusion. "It's a shame he's not played for India yet. Hopefully the concerned people are listening," Chhetri had said following the ISL final that Bengaluru FC won following a winning strike by Bheke himself.
Bheke wasn't even the only Indian player who might have felt hard done. Brandon Fernandes too had been a surprise omission from Constantine's set-up. The FC Goa midfielder had performed credibly for his side, scoring three goals and providing two assists to help them finish second in the ISL. Fernandes too had his fingers crossed after doing a bit of research following the appointment of Stimac. "Once I learned he was going to be our new coach I googled him to find out more," says Fernandes. "And I found out about all his experience. I also learned he had been a player too, which was good."
But Stimac -- a former Croatia, Derby County and West Ham United player -- had not just impressed the AIFF's technical committee by virtue of his playing career. One of the reasons offered by the technical committee in their choice for selecting Stimac was his knowledge about the Indian domestic set-up. As such it came as little surprise when both Fernandes and Bheke were called up to the list of 37 probables for next month's King's Cup.
Speaking just before the side's training session, Fernades and Bheke both admitted just how frustrating it had been to not be considered for the national team. "When people say that you are a very good Indian player but you are still not getting picked, you do get hurt," says Fernandes. "You do get the negative thoughts into your head. But I kept calm and did what's in my control."
It's a sentiment shared by Bheke too. "It's part of football," he says. "Sometimes you have downs and face disappointments. I didn't lose hope. I knew my time would come if I keep working hard."
The two have only been able to meet Stimac once, on Monday evening, but believe that limited interaction augurs well. "He began with a namaste," says Bheke. "Everyone appreciated that. He was very positive regarding what our aims and mentality should be. He says we have to dream big if we have to be good in Asia."
Bheke is dreaming big too. Now that he has his foot in the door, he's hoping to make the most of it. While Stimac hasn't spoken in detail of the tactics he hopes to employ, Bheke is willing to do what it takes. "He hasn't said about individual style but he wants attacking football," he says. "My target is see what the coach's pattern is and do that well. I'm looking forward to getting into the national team. This is a chance that I can't afford to blow up."