ISL 2016: Chennaiyin FC captain Bernard Mendy constantly fuelled by challenges and cheers
In ISL 2016, Chennaiyin FC have struggled to match last year's success, but captain Bernard Mendy's energy has provided hope and shown there is still life in the champions.
"I like to be next to the fans, put everything into the game, sometimes it’s hard, but that's how I like to play," a cheerful and ever-animated Bernard Mendy tries to put in words what he's all about.
Few in India knew who Mendy was when he arrived on the east coast of India to don the Chennaiyin FC jersey. An eight-year spell at Paris-Saint Germain before their glory days, and a stint with Hull City weren't enough for football fans in India to remember him.
However, playing with flamboyance in the Indian Super League, he simply couldn't be ignored. The 35-year-old caught the Indian fans' eyes when he scored a breathtaking bicycle kick to win the game against the Kerala Blasters. It was Chennai's first home game in the opening season and a new star was born at the Marina Arena.
While his performances have continued to impress, it was his on-field exuberance and energy which made the fans in India warm up to him.
Fast forward to 2016, Mendy is one of the biggest darlings for Chennaiyin fans. There is a buzz in the stadium when he gets on the ball, the crowd senses that something is going to happen. They want him to run, shoot, score and delight them with his style. To put in shortly, he gets them going.
But the other way round, it's the same for Mendy. He craves for the cheers, the love that the fans shower on him. One can say it is his fuel. Speaking to Firstpost, in an exclusive interview, the Frenchman recalled a few memorable incidents in his career, which have defined him in a certain way.
"The atmosphere, the fans, the engagement with the game. Ninety minutes, no break. The fans clap every time, never shout. For me, England was my style." Mendy has made no secret of his love affair with the Premier League, which he feels is the best league in the world.
While a loan spell at Bolton was fairly uneventful by his standards, his time at Hull City was far more action-packed. He recalls one of the most memorable game of his time there, which saw him make an appearance at the Theatre of Dreams.
A high-flying Hull City, who had made a dream start to life in the Premier League, travelled to then English and European champions Manchester United. Mendy, who was an admirer of United and the Old Trafford crowd, knew he had to make the most of this moment.
"We had a good, hard training in the week before that game," he remembers. However, Mendy had to wait for his chance as Phil Brown, the then Hull manager, decided to start the more attack-minded player from the bench.
"I understood because at Hull I was playing more attacking. He wanted a bit more defensive option. So he said that you be on the bench and if we need you, you play. I was angry. Very angry," the Frenchman said.
In the match, United raced to a 4-1 lead by half-time, and Brown felt it was time to turn to Mendy to get his side back into the game. Mendy's moment had arrived, albeit a bit late, but it had come.
"I said okay it was Old Trafford, so many fans. I loved Old Trafford, I loved Manchester United. My friends Patrice Evra and Cristiano Ronaldo played there and I said okay let’s do it," the player remembers telling himself before coming on.
While it was a great moment for him, it was a huge ask on the pitch. Playing on the right flank against a rampant Ronaldo and a Manchester United side that had the likes of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov was always going to be tough. But for Mendy it was all about seizing his chance, proving himself and venting out his pre-match anger.
"I put all the anger in me on the pitch," he recalls fondly.
Mendy inspired a Hull fightback and scored his side's second goal, beating his friend Evra in the process. Later on, he put Hull on the cusp of the unthinkable when he fearlessly ran at Rio Ferdinand and forced him to give away a penalty. Suddenly it was 4-3 and the best team in Europe was rocking.
United held on, but Mendy and Hull won hearts of the Old Trafford faithful. "After the game, the Manchester United fans clapped for us. For me it was very special. Unbelievable!" he exclaimed.
Born in Paris, it was the streets where he began playing football. But the Chennaiyin captain revealed that it wasn't the first sport that he would play with his friends there.
"Football happened to me when I was young playing in the city with friends, chilling with them. But most of the time we play basketball, football was just another choice," he said.
Mendy recalls being particularly good at basketball and spoke about a point of time in his childhood when he had to make a choice. "For me it was football all the way, but my teacher said that I must come to play basketball. I was a very good basketball player," he added.
But being born in a football-crazy family, where both his brothers played football, Mendy opted to go with his heart and become a professional footballer. "The (basketball) teacher told me that it was a bad decision. But I made that choice and I’m happy about it," he said.
Living in Paris, playing for PSG — the biggest club in the city, was his first big dream. With his passion, drive and help from the family, Mendy fulfilled this dream when he was 18. He was offered his first contract by the French giants and he was quite rightly over the moon.
"It was a dream come true," a nostalgic Mendy told Firstpost.
"Also for the family because with my first contract, I bought a house for my mom and dad. For my brother and sister too. I said to my dad you don’t need to work anymore. So it was special," he added.
PSG at that time didn't soar to the heights that they do currently, but Mendy fondly remembers the day he made his Champions League debut. It was a big day for PSG and playing against Bayern Munich made it a massive occasion.
As always, Bayern were packed with superstars like Hassan Salihamidzic, Sammy Kuffour and more and a young Mendy was thrown into the mix. He started out of position and was up against an in-form Salihamidzic. It was special, but extremely challenging nonetheless.
"I played against Salihamidzic and I played a very good game. First time listening to that Champions League music, there was more motivation. My family was there, friends were there, it was nice. I didn't score the winning goal, but I was the Man of the Match. It was an unbelievable game and another dream," he recalled.
Mendy's romance with big games has continued in India too. Last season, when the odds were stacked against Chennaiyin, he scored an important goal against Mumbai City FC on a very heavy pitch under torrential rain to help his side win 3-0. After that, there was no looking back as Mendy guided his team to the ISL title.
In the current edition, Chennaiyin have struggled to match last year's success, but Mendy's energy has provided hope. For both his goals, he ripped through opposition defences, leaving them gasping. The Frenchman has shown that there is still life in the champions.
He is never shy of expressing himself on the pitch and his energy is infectious. Chennaiyin are once again in a spot of bother in the 2016 ISL season and if they come out of it, Mendy will be at the centre of their revival.
He's a champion and he thrives on challenges like these. The loud chants of 'Bernard Mendy, Bernard Mendy' at the Marina Arena are his fuel. If the fans can keep those in good supply, one may still see Chennaiyin lift the trophy again.
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