Panaji, Jan 4: Md Rafique is a seasoned campaigner on the Indian football circuit. Having made his senior debut for the United Sports Club in 2010, the midfielder rose to prominence following his impressive performances against the Kolkata giants in his formative years.
In 2014, he signed up for the red-and-gold brigade and became an endearing name to the supporters during his four-year stint there. He's also credited with scoring the first-ever goal in a Hero ISL final in 2014.
With SC East Bengal featuring in their maiden Hero ISL campaign, the 29-year old is back in the red-and-gold camp after a two-year hiatus, and has become a vital element of Head Coach Robbie Fowler's plans.
A day after SCEB's maiden win in the tournament, against Odisha FC at Tilak Maidan, Rafique spoke on a variety of subjects, including the result, the morale of the team at present, his new nickname and why the red-and-gold shirt means the world to him, in this candid chat with the club's official website.
Q: We had been playing well for a long time, but a win was eluding us. How satisfying was yesterday's victory?
The red-and-gold brigade always steps on the field with a winning mentality. We lost and drew some of our matches because we always pushed for a win. We never resort to a defensive mindset even if we're a goal down.
We've started the year with a win, so the team spirit is high. We made a good comeback yesterday, which is a positive sign, and I hope that fans will continue to back us the way they've done so far.
Q: What according to you did we do differently yesterday?
I think the entire team, including those on the bench, put up a brilliant fight, which is so intrinsic to SC East Bengal. We showed that if you fight till the end, you can achieve anything.
Q: What did Robbie Fowler say in the team huddle after the win? Could you talk us through that?
Yeah, sure. When I was drafted into the starting XI for the first time this season, I told all the boys that we need to huddle together and chant 'Joy East Bengal' before the start of every game. That chant spreads a lot of positive energy. I feel proud to be wearing this red-and-gold shirt and fighting for the club!
Q: We were not winning despite playing well. When you went to sleep last night, you must have felt relieved. What kind of feedback have you been receiving from the fans?
Whenever I play for this club, I never think that I should reserve some of my energy for the next game. I always go into a match thinking that it's my last match. That motivates me to deliver my 200% effort. I know that if you work hard, you're bound to get rewarded. All of us have been trying our best, but sometimes luck doesn't go your way. Every match is a do-or-die match for us. Hopefully, we'll be able to play more compact football in the upcoming fixtures.
Q: Talking about upcoming fixtures, we play two matches in the next five days. How do you look at it?
When you put this shirt on, there's no room for excuses. Yes, it's true that such a packed schedule can be tiresome for players. Having said that, you've to overcome it and recover quickly in order to prepare for the next match. We're hopeful of bagging another positive result against FC Goa.
Q: This season's Hero ISL is different because we're all staying in bio-bubbles. You're a livewire. Could you share your thoughts on the team environment and the bonding within the camp?
We're a family. This is the best moment of my life. I'll never get this moment back once I retire from the game and look back. I like to have fun. There's nothing bigger than football for me. Nothing can make you prouder than playing for a club with millions of fans.
I must thank our entire support staff who work tirelessly behind the scenes. They've become part of my family now. We've been together for the past 70-75 days, and I hope to stay in touch with every single one of them after I return to Kolkata.
Q: Your nickname is already very popular within the team. Could you tell our fans what name the Gaffer has given you?
(Bursts out laughing.) Everyone calls me Rafique, but one day I heard the Gaffer shout from behind, 'Rafa! Rafa!' Initially, I thought that he was calling somebody else, but when I looked back at him, I realised that he was calling me! The name stuck with me from that point. Now everyone in the team calls me 'Rafa'. Even during matches, my teammates call me 'Rafa' now. I've started enjoying it.
Q: We're about to enter the second leg of the tournament. What can our fans expect? Do you have any message for them?
Firstly, I would like to wish all of you a Happy New Year. I didn't wish you earlier because I wanted to do so after winning a game. Your support means everything to us. Our legacy and fame rest on your unflinching support for the team. We work hard only to make you smile. Keep backing us. We'll try our best to give you more joy by doing well in the next game, too.