Arata Izumi has been named in India’s 23-man squad for Wednesday’s friendly against Palestine at Kochi.
Wait, what? Arata Izumi? The Japanese midfielder who plays for Pune FC?
Yes, half-Indian half-Japanese Arata Izumi. Or you could call him Neelkanth Khambolja, (which is his Indian name and one he doesn’t prefer). Of course, ‘Izumi’ looks so much cooler on the back of a football shirt.
The 30-year-old has become the first foreigner to be selected in the Indian team after he obtained an Indian passport in August 2012, and will add a different dynamic if he gets the opportunity. Izumi dons the playmaker’s role on the pitch, a position vital for a team that needs a higher rate of chance creation.
We’ve seen this happen a lot of times in football — Lewis Holtby choosing to play for Germany rather than England, Rafael chooses Brazil over Portugal, Raheem Sterling choosing England over Jamaica and Michael Chopra choosing England over India.
But Arata’s story is unique in the way that he has chosen to play for India over Japan — a team which is much more prestigious in Asia.
And he has a perfect explanation for this: “I started my career in Singapore before moving to Japan, but India is a different place for foreigners. Attention-wise you get so much more here while I was ‘just another player’ in Japan.”
Unlike the superstars of the game who can give away their salary to charity, Izumi modestly admits that money is certainly important, but it’s also about getting a chance to play. A footballer wants to play football, and he’s no different.
“Obviously I care about money!” he exclaims, before settling down to speak about playing-time: “It’s also about getting a chance. People ask me why I don’t go abroad and play… but there has to be an opportunity right? I got this chance and I took it. And I’m very happy about it.”
Having been brought up in Japan, Arata surely misses his homeland and says that he is more Japanese than Indian: “The Japanese in me will never die. I miss Japan and my friends over there, but I make sure that my mother comes every year to watch me play. I haven’t got the time to go back home in the last three years, but hope to do so soon.
But seven years can change people. If Arata is ready to don the national colours, does that mean he hopes to settle down in the country? “Yes, of course. I want to hang up my boots and settle down in India. It’s a complete misconception that Japan is a better place to live than India. That totally depends on choices you make. Since moving here in 2006, a lot of my habits have also changed. I can eat spicier food now. So I’m getting Indianised slowly and it’s great to be living here.”
Eating habits may have changed, but we can almost imagine him hunched over some hi-tech piece of technology or pressing 10 buttons at a time like one of those genius Japanese gamers. But Arata doesn’t fit into the stereotype: “Yeah well, I like to play on the PSP (PlayStation Portable) but I’m not crazy about it.”
Arata loves the food, loves the attention and loves the country. But football-wise, he is aware of the huge gap between Japan and India: “There’s no doubt about the huge gap in football. But I can see lots of improvement in Indian football. They are trying to follow footsteps of other countries and can be among the top five teams in Asia.”
Make no mistake, Arata Izumi is a star and carries off the polite Japanese mannerisms with perfection. Amid his club duties with Pune FC, Arata has a sharp eye on displacing someone in midfield to don the Indian colours.
“I’m ready to play for India,” he says, with the confidence of someone who has 25 goals and 20 assists in around 97* appearances for Pune.
And we can’t wait to see him make history.
*Statistics taken from Goal.com and Wikipedia
Follow live updates of the India vs Palestine friendly on Firstpost, 6.25 PM onwards on Wednesday