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Abneet Bharti: meet the youngest Indian to make it to European pro football

Suyash Upadhyaya | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:19 IST

The player

  • Abneet Bharti, born in Nepal to Indian parents, turns 17 on 14 Jul
  • Is a defender who has played for youth teams in Singapore and for Spain\'s Real Valladolid
  • Has appeared for trials at Eintracht Frankfurt of Germany and other German second division clubs
  • Since he is a minor and his parents live in Poland, under FIFA rules he can\'t play elsewhere
  • He is set to become only the fifth Indian to play professionally in Europe.

The club

  • Podbeskidzie Bielsco-Biala has recently got promoted to the Polish top division, the Ekstraklasa
  • It has signed a sponsorship deal that will make it financially strong
  • Podbeskidzie has agreed to give Bharti a one year-plus-one year extension contract
  • This is so that once he\'s 18, Bharti can try his luck and play in the German Bundesliga

When Abneet Bharti turns 17 on 14 July, he'll receive a gift that all Indian footballers of his age wish for - a professional contract with a team in a top-level European league.

Bharti is set to sign up with Podbeskidzie Bielsco-Biala of the Polish top division, the Ekstraklasa, making him the youngest Indian ever to sign a professional contract with a European football club. The league features top teams like Wisla Krakow, Lech Poznan and Legia Warsaw.

For the talented defender himself, there could be no bigger moment. He has an impressive six-feet-one-inch frame, which makes him suited to play at the centre back position. He can also play as a central defensive midfielder or a full back.

But biggest plus point of his game is his tenacity and a willingness to put himself into challenging positions on the pitch and do the hard work.

For a country whose footballers struggle to be taken seriously around the world, this could come as a big shot in the arm. After all, he will be just the second Indian in history to sign a contract with a top-division team in Europe, after Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who is contracted to the Norwegian Tippeligaen club Stabaek FC.

Early years

Bharti was born in Nepal to Indian parents and spent a large part of his childhood in Nigeria and Italy, before he moved to Delhi at the age of 12, when he picked up football seriously.

Owing to his parents being in transferable occupations, Bharti then shifted to Singapore, where he earned his first youth contract at the age of 13 with top-tier side Geylang United's under-14 team.

Making an impression with his performances for Geylang, he was soon picked up by an even bigger club in Singapore - Balestier Khalsa - and represented their U-16 team, a step up in age and level.

Spanish sojourn

Things fell in place for Bharti to make his first foray into Europe when a scout from the now-second division Spanish side Real Valladolid saw him playing for Balastier Khalsa.

He was invited for a trial in Spain by Valladolid, and impressed the club, which decided to take him on board for its U-16 team. However, he was unable to get on to the official roster as he was not eligible for a work permit at the age of 15, under FIFA regulations regarding the protection and international transfer of minors.

He trained with the Valladolid U-16s on a regular basis, and impressed the club so much that he was fast-tracked into the U-19 set up. He represented both the U-16 and U-19 Valladolid teams in friendly matches, and honed his technical skills.

Twisty road to Poland

It was while playing for Valladolid that scouts from all over Europe started taking an interest in Bharti.

He underwent trials with German top-division (Bundesliga) club Eintracht Frankfurt and the recently-promoted SV Darmstadt, and second division clubs FSV Frankfurt and TSV 1860 Munich.

However, his parents were moving to Poland, and under FIFA regulations, minors are only allowed to sign professional contracts with clubs if their parents reside in the same country.

Nothing tangible came of the trials with the German clubs, even as Bharti attended another trial with Belgian giants RSC Anderlecht, who are still said to be monitoring his progress.

In the light of this, scouts from Bielsco-Biala came at the most opportune time. He was invited for a trial at the Polish outfit, which was so impressed with him that he was offered a straight three-year contract.

However, Bharti still harbours dreams of playing in the Bundesliga, the third-best league in Europe according to European football body UEFA's rankings.

He has an impressive six-feet-one-inch frame, which makes him suited to play at the centre back position

With a year to go till he turns 18 and is finally eligible to get an independent work permit, a one year + one year extension contract has been agreed.

Podbeskidzie Bielsco-Biala will start the season in the Polish first division after having been promoted last year. They have just signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Polish property development firm Murapol, which will make them one of the most financially-strong clubs in the league.

Indians in Europe

This move has put Bharti firmly in the conversation about Indians who have plied their trade in Europe. In fact, he is set to become the fifth person, after Mohammed Salim, Bhaichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri, and Sandhu, to get a chance to play in Europe.

Salim, a bare-footed wonder from Kolkata, played two unofficial matches for Scottish giants Celtic FC in 1936, as recorded by various sources.

Bhutia had turned out for Bury FC of the English third division from 1999 to 2001, but his time there was plagued by injuries, and he was unable to make much of an impact.

In 2009, Chhetri was on the verge of moving to English Championship (second division) side Queens Park Rangers, with a three-year contract signed and terms agreed, when the UK government refused to grant him a work permit.

The UK only permits non-EU players if the player's country is ranked within the top 70 of the FIFA rankings, which India was not. (Thankfully, there is no such regulation in Poland and in other leagues across Europe, which works to Bharti's advantage.)

Chhetri eventually went ahead and had a brief stint with the US Major League League side Sporting Kansas City (then called Kansas City Wizards) and with Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon's B team.

As far as Bharti's national team link goes, he was invited to be a part of the Indian U-16 training camp when he was 14, but could not join it due to logistical complications.

However, he could soon be turning out in the blue of India, and his performances for his new club could definitely further the cause of Indian football on the global stage.

First published: 14 July 2015, 3:47 IST
Suyash Upadhyaya @SuyashU

A believer of the Indian football dream and an ardent cricket fan who likes to explore the nuanced side of all sports, Suyash finds creative expression in sports writing. Lover of literature, Liverpool FC, and an earnest economics enthusiast, he has just joined Catch News after completing his post graduation at Xavier Institute of Communications, Mumbai. When not staying up the whole night watching football, he loves spending time playing the sport itself, reading, and generally wondering when he'll decipher everything about the world around him.