Calcutta, Sept. 4: Not many 21-year-olds watching a Barca match on television with buddies can brag that they have kicked a ball with Neymar and shared a joke with him after practice.
Basharat Bashir Baba can. This young man from Srinagar who aspires to play for a Maidan club was 18, as was Neymar, when they had met in Brazil in 2010.
Neymar was then marking time as a Santos FC recruit while Basharat had just had his first brush with prejudice in India.
The Kashmiri’s struggle to get a passport because of his father’s militant past was highlighted in a documentary called Inshallah, Football that year.
The world hadn’t heard of Lionel Messi’s future partner in the FC Barcelona forward line in 2010, but Basharat recalls that Neymar was already a legend in the making in Brazil.
“He hadn’t made his international debut but he was already a big name. From the moment we landed in that country, we were hearing ‘Neymar, Neymar’ everywhere. So we very curious to see him,” Basharat, the second of three brothers, told Metro.
Striker Basharat had made it to the land of Pele as part of a football exchange programme that gave eight youngsters from Kashmir the opportunity to train there and spend time with the Santos squad.
For a young man from a country then ranked 142 by Fifa, seeing and interacting with the future stars of five-time world champions Brazil was an eye-opener.
“Neymar was extremely serious during practice. He would tell us to not lose focus for even a second while on the field and always give 100 per cent. That approach still shows in his game,” recounted Basharat, who has been “acclimatising” in Calcutta, a football-crazy city, since May.
So how much of the Neymar of 2013 did he notice in 2010?
“I was stunned by his speed. He would break through any defence with sudden acceleration. His dribbling and finishing were out of the world,” Basharat said.
After practice, Neymar would be just another easygoing Brazilian eager to banter with the boys. It is something Basharat — Basha to friends — can identify with.
On that trip, Basharat also ran into one of his childhood heroes, Ronaldo. If he has one regret, it is not being able to converse with the Golden Boot winner because a translator wasn’t around.
“He was doing some exercises when we were passing by. He shook hands with us and smiled,” recalled Basharat, a former student of Srinagar’s Army Public School.
Basharat’s meeting with Neymar and Ronaldo almost didn’t happen because of his father’s background. He had applied for his passport in 2009, just ahead of a year-long training programme in Spain for which he had been chosen. His application was rejected.
Months later, eight young Kashmiri footballers were selected to train in Brazil for two months in 2010. Seven got passports, Basharat didn’t.
His might have been another unheard story of an opportunity denied had filmmaker Ashvin Kumar not come to know of it through Brazilian coach Marcos, who had taken the International Sport Academy Trust programme to Kashmir. Kumar’s award-winning Inshallah, Football shows officials admitting that Basharat’s family background had come in the way of him getting a passport.
A newspaper report detailing his plight then caught chief minister Omar Abdullah’s eye and Basharat finally got his passport in 2010, just in time for the trip to Brazil.
Basharat still rues missing out on Spain, though. “I was 17 and it could have been a career-defining trip,” he said.
In Calcutta, Basharat has already attended selection trials for Mohammedan Sporting and is waiting to showcase his skills to the other big clubs.
With Neymar’s work ethic for inspiration, striker Basharat could be just a shot away from his goal.