IRAIW Interview with Erik Paartalu
I managed to sit down with former Australian international, Erik Paartalu, to find out more about him, his career and Indian football. The forward has played in a multitude of settings; taking him around the world.
You started your career with Gretna, in the lower leagues of Scotland, what was that experience like?
For me, the hallowed ground of Raydale Park was the beginning of my professional football career. Whilst I had played before in Australia, at that time the league wasn’t terribly professional nor prestigious.
Going to a European league, even though it be the second tier of Scottish football, was for me my first professional venture into football. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Millions of miles away from home, I learnt many lessons on and off the pitch, about the player and the person I was.
I look back on that time fondly and have incredible memories winning the first division title and getting the team into the top flight of Scottish football.
You touched on the highs at Gretna, but what was it like when the team folded in 2008?
Incredibly strange. Then again, we knew for quite a long time that the owner Brooks Mileson wasn’t very well. He had a long standing health issue. Although there was nobody else who can do that job, nobody that could embody the club like he did. The clubs financial state was not so good either; so the club dissolved.
I think he would be proud of what we achieved on the field.
You’ve played all across the world, in Australia, Korea, Scotland and now India. How does life in the sub-continent compare?
I have to say, I never thought my career would afford me so many opportunities to travel. I’ve played in seven different countries. It really has been an amazing journey so far. In Asia, it can be difficult to adapt and the times aren’t always easy. I’ve learnt to adapt and roll with the punches.
India is certainly different. I’m not sure there’s anywhere quite like it. For me, it’s the people in India that make it such a special country. I’ve found that they are interesting, inspirational and beyond all welcoming. I’m lucky that I can consider so many of them my friends.
Sure, India isn’t very clean and the traffic literally drives you crazy! But everywhere has its flaws and we shouldn’t compare other places by only its downfalls. They are many problems everywhere, but we must focus on our immediate beings and make it the best it can be. I’ve found a gem of a country and made some friends too.
So what about the Bangalore fans? How do they compare?
Again, they’re so special. To say the club has only been established for the last five or six years, they’ve created a real community. Not only the playing personnel but the matchday staff and the fans. It’s a real family. I don’t there’s a better club for atmosphere in the Indian Super League.
There’s great respect between all parties in the club, I think that’s why the players play for the badge despite the club not having a great deal of history. It’s that which has spurred the team to the huge success it’s had in its embryonic phase.
How did you end up in India?
I had the opportunity to be part of a new start for Indian sports. I think the retirement-payday players are declining, especially in India. Club supporters want the players to come and play for them, not the large amounts of money thrown at them. I was happy to help facilitate this by coming to Bangalore. I've since extended my time here!
What’s the best thing about Indian football right now?
The national media coverage is certainly doing the league a favour. Whilst it is a country still dominated by cricket, football is becoming more commonplace. Now the average man in the street can tell you the closest ISL team and who the captain is. I’m told it wasn't like this just a few years ago.
I’ve personally seen the league go from strength to strength in the last six months. At this rate, India will be challenging the rest of Asia at club level very soon. The media need to continue their work by promoting us and we will deliver for them.
So how does the Indian national team improve?
Grassroots. Whilst the league is great, they need to improve their youth interest and intake. Maybe 99 out of 100 Indian boys want to be a superstar cricket player. We need to change that and get them interested and playing at a young age. It’s possible the current youth systems aren’t good enough. Foreign coaches might be able to help, especially in the short term.
I’ve learnt in my short time here that Indian culture observes systems very well. That’s why Indian people tend to speak several languages. They learn the rules to the exact degree and master it. In football, they can do that too but it doesn’t prepare very well for a real game situation where things don’t always go to plan or follow a set script. We need to adapt and evolve from that mentality to get better at football.
Where do you think the Indian football will be in 10 years time then?
Should everything go down the same course it is now, there’s no reason why the team can’t be in the top half of world football and one of the best in Asia. Maybe, just maybe with the World Cup expanding to 48 teams; India could qualify or contest qualification. I think they need to get a few of the Indian boys out of India and playing football elsewhere to experience different strategies and styles of play.
In terms of the league, I can see the ISL as contending with the top leagues of Asia in continental competition and attracting top talent from Europe and the Americas
Would you ever consider moving back to Australia or anywhere else you’ve played before?
I never say never in football. I’m very happy in Asia and found a fondness for India during my short time here so far. I’m 32 now and I’ve got years left yet, but I am starting to think about what I’ll do after I finish playing the game. These are just ideas right now though.
You played for Australia a few times. What did you think to the Socceroos performance in Russia?
I think a lot of their performance came down to the coach and how they had to change just before the World Cup. We had some good performances and the boys showed character. They don’t have a clinical striker. That’s why we lacked goals. In the future we need a coach who is going to focus on attacking and get the team scoring goals.
Okay, so finally what’s been your favourite moment in your career?
It’s hard to pick just a single moment, but when I scored the 120th-minute header in the 2011 A-League Grand Final has to be the standout moment. My headed goal won the title for Brisbane Roar and we were crowned champions. The timing, the emotion, the grandeur of the moment was… sensational. Moments like that just don’t come round very often; I was lucky enough to have such an experience.