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Sport

Born in Japan, Made in India

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MUCH AT HOME: A popular figure in his adopted hometown, Arata Izumi says he enjoysliving in Pune

Arata Izumi left Japan to play club football in India. Soon, he will become the first ‘PIO’ to play for India.


Arata Izumi will be making Indian football history. The Japanese is the first Person of Indian Origin to be selected for the senior national team, by Dutchman coach Wim Koevermans for the international friendly against Palestine later this month.

Having earned his place after an impressive season for Pune FC, Arata is today an elated man. His is a story that has caught the imagination of Indian football fans. Even the Japanese media has suddenly shown interest in the 30-year-old attacking midfielder's story. Most crucially, it has been noticed by footballers of Indian origin, playing in minors leagues abroad. But it hasn't been an easy journey. When Arata arrived in India in 2006 to play club football, he was soon taken in by his 'native' country and decided to give playing for the national team a shot.

Born to an Indian father (Narendra Khamboja) and Japanese mother (Akiko) in 2011, Arata took a crucial step to renounce his Japanese citizenship and become an Indian citizen. It was fulfilling an AIFF stipulation, where a player has to hold a valid Indian passport to get into the National squad.

Born in 1982 in a small town called Shimonoseki in south Japan, Arata grew up like any other kid. He began playing football at the age of nine. Without knowing much about the game, one day after school he followed his elder brother Shinobo to a game and joined in. "Everyone praised my game and said that I played really well, " remembers Arata.

He played for the school team and then for the city. He travelled to China and South Korea to play matches as part of the city team. Even after joining an engineering college he continued to dream of playing professional football. So he turned out for trials for an academy called Japan Soccer College in Niigata where he got selected and had to shift base away from his hometown. He was sent to Germany and New Zealand for training. While watching a match there he nearly encountered Marco van Basten there who was coach of the visiting U-19 Ajax team. "But I could not speak English and thus was scared to meet him, "he remembers with a laugh.

In fact the level of football which he saw the under-19 s play at the Dutch club famed for its youth system, only encouraged Arata to raise his own game.

Two years later he started to train with a second string team of Albirex Niigata, a Japanese JLeague Div 1 side, though he was not officially signed on. This club founded a satellite team in Singapore called Albirex Niigata Singapore FC, which he officially joined and thus began his first professional career. During this period he was contacted by an agent in India with playing offers in India. "I had no clue about what Indian football was like. So I did not show interest initially, " he confesses.

After a year in Singapore he returned back to Japan and joined a semi-professional side called Mitsubishi Mizushima FC which played in the Japan Football League (JFL). He did not like the setup and found himself struggling and wanted to get back to professional football. Six months later he sent out his CV across the world in the hope of getting offers from professional clubs. The same agent in India once again contacted him again, offering him a contract with East Bengal. "He sent me some clips of East Bengal matches and other matches. I started to think seriously and decided to come to India. " That's how Arata' tryst with India and Indian football kicked off. He joined East Bengal mid-season in 2006. He began getting lots of lucrative offers and six months later he switched to Mahindra United FC. He plied his trade in Mumbai for two years during which the team won the Durand Cup and IFA Shield. Then, hit by injury he had to sit out for six months in the first season. His agent continued to look for better offers and soon enough Pune FC - who were just getting set up - showed an interest in him after their English coach Stewart Hall was impressed seeing him during a training session at Mahindra Utd. "I joined Pune FC because it was a new team which was trying to be professional. A fresh team with fresh ideas was what I liked, " says Arata. It has been a favourable stint. On January 20 he played his 100th competitive match for Pune FC. He wasn't on the scorers list that day, but got his name on it in the next match against East Bengal. It was at Pune FC that he met his lady love Shweta Manerikar, a phyisotherapist. "I got injured and the club physio sent me to Shweta for physiotherapy. That's how we came to know each other, " he grins. After courting her for six months he proposed to her in one of the least expected circumstances. "One day we went out and had a huge fight in the car, and we were not talking. We reached McDonalds and both of us were seated on the bench quietly with Mr (Ronald) McDonald in the middle. Suddenly it struck me: 'I want to marry this girl. ' I just leaned over and asked her to marry me. She was like.... 'Well... hmmm... okay', " he says with a big laugh, adding, "Mr McDonald is our best man. " Arata wants to make Pune his permanent home and plans to buy a home there soon. "Prices are going up so it has to happen very soon, " he laughs. He taken to Indian food and masala dosa, puribhaaji and butter chicken as among his favourites. He's also trying to understand Hindi and Marathi. "Mera naam Arata hai... Yeh sabji kitna, " he giggles as he shows off his Hindi-speaking skills.

Marriage and a decent career made him think again about Indian citizenship in 2010. There were other factors too, like wanting to play for India. "I have been here for six years and it has been comfortable. If I went back to Japan now I wouldn't know what to do. I can get a job and a comfortable life but nothing excites me there. That's also why I started to play in Singapore. Besides, I don't have the same connection with people there now, " he says. He loves watching Hindi movies but has to watch DVDs at home since they have subtitles.

As a PIO (Person of Indian Origin) he could have continued staying in India without giving up his Japanese citizenship, but the idea of playing for India was taking shape. "A Japanese can visit many countries without needing a visa but an Indian cannot. But then I spoke to lot of people and told myself this is my dream, my life and decided to go for it, " he says.

A year later, he faced hardships aplenty when applying for citizenship. "No one knew the procedure to apply. Mine was a lone case of a Japanese wanting to become Indian. My wife and I went to Delhi many times to the ministry and had to run about a lot to get various documents. Different languages was also a problem. Finally after 11 months we got it, " he says, sounding relieved. "It's been worth all that trouble after all that stress. We also have our careers to take care of. "
There was little help from his paternal side too. Arata first came to Mumbai when he was eight years old. "I came with my mother and brother to meet my father's side of the family. It was nice to meet and know that I have relatives in India. We were here for a few days, " he remembers. His father is separated from his mother and Arata made his dislike for his father clear. "The last time I met him was when I was nine years old. After that only my mother and brother have met him a few times. I also got busy with my football career. He did not keep in touch and I do not want to meet him either. It's only my mother and brother I love, " he says, "I don't like to see my mother sad so I only give her the good news. Selection to the Indian team is one of them, " he says.

Arata wants his mother to shift to India. "But she's not yet ready, " he laughs, "She's a typical Japanese. She needs all the Japanese stuff. . . "

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