Paartalu ready for another 'exciting' Asian adventure
Thimphu: Bengaluru FC were a regular feature in the AFC Cup knockout rounds between 2015 and 2018 and, having missed out on the competition last year, are eyeing a return this time round ahead of their Preliminary Round 2 first leg against Bhutan’s Paro FC on Wednesday.
A key fixture in the side’s success since joining in 2017 has been Australian midfielder Erik Paartalu, who helped the club win their first Indian Super League title in 2018-19 and is aiming to hold onto that crown this year.
In the build-up to the away date in the Himalayas, the man affectionately known as 'Big E' among the Bengaluru fans spoke exclusively to the-AFC.com about the importance of the AFC Cup, coaching influences, a former roommate turned opponent and man buns.
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Hi Erik! Firstly, Bengaluru have a strong history in the AFC Cup. How important would it be to get back into the group stage?
The club reached the final a few of years ago but unfortunately we haven’t been able to get back to that position. I felt as though in the last AFC Cup campaign we had our strongest squad that we’ve had for a long time, but we didn’t get past the first knockout round [against Altyn Asyr].
It was disappointing how it ended last time but for now the focus is to get to the group stage and we’ll go from there and try and put ourselves in the position to make our season a bit longer.
You still have two rounds to go to get there. First up is Paro FC. What are your thoughts ahead of the away leg in Bhutan?
Firstly, football takes you to amazing places. Going to places like DPR Korea and the Maldives and now Bhutan. Probably three countries I would never have dreamt of travelling to. Bhutan has been on the list for a while, so to be in that country, I find it to be quite spiritual. I’m hoping it’ll be a good contest but we know it won’t be easy.
The weather conditions are the complete opposite from India and we’ll be playing on an artificial pitch. We know it will be tough but I expect us to put on a good show and try and get a good result in Bhutan.
Obviously you'll be up against former BFC player Chencho Gyeltshen. Can you tell us a bit about him, his potential and what he brings to the side?
I roomed with Chencho for most of pre-season last year, so a good month with him. I know him quite well, he’s a very proud Bhutanese person and it’s great that he’s found a club because he’s too good not to be playing football at a good level. You can see every game he’s playing in he’s scoring goals and he’s dangerous.
We all know his attributes, he’s lightning fast and he’s got a very good eye for goal, so he’s one we’re going to have to keep an eye on. Obviously every former BFC player loves to come back and score against us, so if we stop him from scoring we’ve done a very good job.
Carles Cuadrat took over from Albert Roca in 2018. From the outside it seems like a smooth transition. What are the differences and similarities between the pair?
I have huge respect for Carles and Albert. You look at Carles, he’s very versatile. Last year we played a possession-based game and we were creating good chances and scoring good goals. This year he’s been very flexible and we’ve been playing a defensive brand of football with counter-attacking capabilities.
With Albert, he was astute in what he was doing, he wanted to play football no matter what and sometimes that was good for us but sometimes I think it could have changed a little.
But I respect both coaches for the way they play. I feel as though both coaches have taught me a lot about my game and are probably the best two managers I’ve worked under, aside from Ange Postecoglou.
Would it be fair to say you're a bit of a cult figure among the BFC fans? Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with them?
I have a good relationship with the fans. This is my third season so that always helps. Obviously as does being successful, winning trophies and scoring important goals. Playing regularly, you’re going to be in the limelight and you can’t miss me with my man bun and my very poor beard that I’m trying to grow for a little more of an image.
I have a good relationship with everyone here in Bangalore. I’ve embraced the culture, embraced the people and I think they’ve done the same with me. There’s a big mutual respect between us.
Back to the AFC Cup. BFC have been to the final before and have had some bad luck in the latter rounds also. Do you think the near misses motivate the team well to come back stronger?
We don’t look at the AFC Cup final as motivation. It was a completely different squad and set of circumstances. We are different teams and every year is a different challenge. I think what motivates us as players is that the Indian Super League is too short a season and the AFC Cup actually extends our season for three months more, which is great.
I think that’s what helped us in the Indian Super League two years ago when we came back early for pre-season to play in the AFC Cup. That’s the motivation – to play as many games as a club and give a good name for BFC in Asia.
Finally, obviously there's a long way to go, but what is the target for the AFC Cup?
Let’s get through the first game and then there’d be another two play-off games and then let’s see what we get in the group stage. Everyone wants to play in Asia because it’s great to travel to all these countries, be around different environments and see a different side to football. It’s exciting!
Photo: Bengaluru FC
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