Mahesh Gawli’s is a name synonymous with Indian and Goan football for the greater part of the last two decades. The former India defender has won almost every trophy there is to win in Indian football in a professional career spanning almost 17 years.
A graduate of the Tata Football Academy (TFA), the Goan defender has won almost every domestic trophy on offer during his time with FC Kochin, Churchill Brothers, East Bengal, Mahindra United and Dempo SC. His international football resume was even more impressive if anything. Having made his debut for India all the way back in 1999, Gawli was part of the U23 team which won the LG Cup at Vietnam in 2002. With the senior team, the defender won two SAFF Cups along with as many Nehru Cup titles.
He was the man-of-the-match in the 2007 Nehru Cup final against Syria. Having hung up his playing boots in 2015, Gawli had been shuttling back and forth from Germany after joining the now named Tata Sons U-Dream project as their Chief of trainers in India. The project works with boys in the age-group 12-14 and aims to aid them in their dream of playing professional football across Europe, the Americas, Asia and India.
While speaking to Goal exclusively, the Goan defender spoke highly of the youth training provided in Germany and how India could take a cue from them in developing its grassroots football.
“When I was in Hoffenheim, I used to see their youth level training. They focus more on the basics because it is very important. We also do focus on the basics but not very much. Over there, by the time they turn 15, they know everything about the basics. You don’t need to teach them anything more. By the time they are 16-17, they are ready to play professional football. That is how natural they are. They start by the age of seven or eight and till the age of 13-14 they are only focusing on the basics,” the soft-spoken Gawli explained.
“I think we are lacking in that. I feel when we want to develop grassroots and youth teams, we need to focus more on the basics. All these small points count a lot in football while we tend to focus on the bigger picture only. You can see that we are not good in basics and that is why we lose out at crucial stages. I think if we focus on these basics first, then we are not very far away from the quality football teams. We need to be smarter.
“I was in the TFA which is a very good academy. However, even after playing for the country for so many years, I feel that if I had better basics at a young age, I could have been a much better player. I feel I could have played in another country or in Europe if I did have that.”
That is not the only regret Gawli has after a trophy-laden career. His retirement from the international stage came at the age of 31 in 2011, just two weeks after India had captured the SAFF Cup in New Delhi.
While 31 is a fairly young age for a top footballer to retire, the Goan has no regrets about that decision.
“Yes I took retirement in 2011 because I had played so many years. We won the SAFF Cup and I thought it was the right time for me to retire since I had been playing continuously for 14 years. I thought it would be the right time for me to retire. I wanted to continue playing till I could but I also wanted to go out on a high,” the former defender stated.
What he does regret is the chance to get back to the national team in 2012 when Dutchman Wim Koeverman was coach of the side. Plying his trade for Dempo SC at the time, Gawli had been given a chance of a recall due to an injury crisis for India.
“They were searching for a replacement and the coach called me. I wanted to come and I went to Lajong for an I-League match but got an injury and could not rejoin the team, unfortunately. I was very disappointed by that but I guess that was God’s plan,” he explained.
The 38-year-old was part of the Indian team which won the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 and subsequently participated in the AFC Asian Cup in 2011. India will once again be back in the continental competition next year where they battle it out with hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain in Group A.
When asked to assess India’s chances of advancing past the group stage, Gawli was optimistic but claimed it would all come down to the mentality of the players.
“I feel the country is doing well, the team is in good shape under Stephen Constantine. The main battle will be played in the mind though. How your mentality is before the game is most important. If the mentality is ‘yes we can’ then we definitely can. The plan is prepared by the coaches but the mentality will be critical.
“At the end of the day, it is the players who will carry out the plans on the field. They will be the ultimate representatives of the country and if they badly want the result then they can definitely do it. I have the confidence that they will clear the group stages.”
While Gawli’s generation saw plenty of Goan representation in the Indian team with the likes of Climax Lawrence and Samir Naik, the state has been falling behind in that regard in recent years. The former defender attributes this trend to the shutting down of I-League clubs in the state along with youngsters chasing style over substance.
“I feel because of the teams shutting down in the I-League, there is no goal for local Goan players. During our team, there were top clubs and so you had a target if you wanted to make it as a player. Now, I feel, there is no target to achieve. I feel there is a lot of talent in Goa. We all know that Goa has a lot of talent. You need to motivate the boys because the new generation wants to achieve their goals very fast. In our times, players were very dedicated and working every day. They were patient and wanted to achieve their goals,” he said.
“These days, there is more style and less of football. They do have a lot of talent. But during our time, there was more football and less style. Generally, the talent came from Goa though. I would tell the boys to focus more on football. They have the talent to reach the top. The Association and clubs have to show these youngsters a pathway,” Gawli went on to add.
While he remains hopeful of football bouncing back in his native state, Gawli has welcomed the introduction of the Indian Super League (ISL) to the football landscape in the country. It was a league Gawli never participated in due to it arriving just as he was winding down his playing career.
“I think the ISL is a good thing. Before, only people who were really into the sport followed Indian football. However, with the ISL, even people who don’t follow the sport know about Indian football. So it is definitely a great thing. I feel they should cut down the foreign players though and give more chances to Indian players. The league has been dominated by foreigners mostly. Five is okay but I still feel it should be lesser. We need more Indians playing in that league,” he opined.
Having dedicated the last three years of his life to the Tata Sons U-Dream project in Germany mainly, the Goan has cut that association due to not being able to give enough time to his family. He has now returned to his homeland and is looking for opportunities.
When asked if he will be sticking to football in the next phase of his professional career, prompt came the reply from Gawli.
“My entire life I have played football. I want to be a part of football itself because I love that game. When I touch a football, I don’t remember by family, I don’t remember anyone. I just see that ball and that’s all that matters. I am definitely open to coaching in India,” he said.
With the years of experience under his belt and the polished and accomplished defender that he was, Gawli could yet play a role in developing Indian football.