After India's first game of the SAFF Championships against Sri Lanka, head coach Stephen Constantine had said in the press conference that it was "unbelievable" that Rowlin Borges does not play in the Indian Super League. Yet, when one meets Rowlin, it's very believable that the 23-year-old Goan midfielder was not a part of the star-studded tournament.
Almost all senior India players have played in the ISL, and it shows. They walk and talk in certain way — like stars. Rowlin is just a normal guy, who got to play for his country. A midfield powerhouse on the field, off it he is very shy. He talks softly and gives really short answers. He smiles a lot and he's very happy.
"I don't want to concentrate on what I've lost, I want to concentrate more on what I've gained," Rowlin said. The holding midfielder wasn't picked to play in the ISL by any club. But he has put that behind him and could not be happier. He is playing for India.
"What is gone, is gone. I don't concentrated on that. Now I'm only concentrating on the final against Afghanistan," said Rowlin. "I was disappointed earlier, but now I'm not."
Rowlin was picked, among a number of other young players, by Constantine for the SAFF Championships and he instantly repaid the coach's trust in him through his performances on the field. It was Rowlin's introduction in the second half against Sri Lanka in the SAFF opener that changed the game and opened up India's midfield. Constantine had praised his performance after the match and credited him for the positive change in the second half.
Since then, Rowlin has not looked back and has cemented his place in the starting eleven. He then went on to score his first goal for the Blue Tigers in the second game against Nepal. Rowlin Borges had officially arrived.
"It was the best moment," he says, struggling for words to describe the moment. "To play for India is one thing, but to score too is very big."
He first met Constantine early this year when he was called for a camp in Delhi. Back then, he was an unknown entity. Constantine met him and told him to work hard on his fitness and advised him to join a gym. "From the first day itself, he motivated me and showed faith in me. I'm very thankful to him," he said.
Rowlin made his debut for the senior team in the international friendly against Nepal on 31 August when he came on as a substitute in the second half for Eugeneson Lyngdoh. But his career has taken off during the ongoing SAFF Championships. A regular place in the team sheet, coaches' trust and first goal — he has found all of it in the past three games. It's a big tournament for him. But his eyes are on the prize.
"The work is not yet over, the final match is still there to be played. If we win that, then only I can say that I've done something for my country," the box-to-box midfielder said.
The humble guy from Nuvem, a small village in football-crazy Goa, Rowlin fell in love with sport early on. It was easy. It was natural. In Goa, football is a way of life and is deeply embedded in the culture. "In Goa, when you say you want to be a professional footballer, everyone is happy. Your family and friends support you and help you to become one," he said.
When he started playing for school, his father Francisco Borges supported him and was always there to motivate him, even though he was first in his family to take up football. His dream of becoming a professional footballer came true when he joined Sporting Clube de Goa as an under-18 player. He had loved watching Ronaldinho play for Brazil and Barcelona. He now had his own club.
And now when he has donned the blue jersey, it feels surreal to him. He is proud to be a team India player, like his idols Sunil Chhetri and Goa's very own Climax Lawrence. And today he plays alongside Chhetri.
"Sunil motivates the younger players. He comes to us after practice and talks to us. He tells us what we need to do to improve. It's a pleasure to play with him every day, be it practice or a match. It's a dream come true," he said.
Rowlin is now a Blue Tiger and he says he will keep working hard keep playing for India. He wants to keep improving and see himself as a better footballer. And if things work out well, he would love to see himself playing in a foreign league. But for now, it's only the SAFF final that's on his mind. Defending champions Afghanistan have been the best team in the tournament and have now scored 16 goals in four games after the 5-0 demolition of Sri Lanka in semi-finals. But Rowlin is not that worried about them.
"They're good, but we're equally good too," he prompted.
Whatever happens in the final, Rowlin intends to have fun. That's what football should be. He has years successes and failures ahead of him — all part of being a professional footballer. But for now, Rowlin is living in the moment.
"It's the best time of my life and I want to enjoy every second of it."