Having been overlooked twice after being nominated for the prestigious Arjuna Award, footballer Deepak Mondal wasn’t optimistic of receiving the honour when he was informed of his nomination this time round.Deepak Mondal receives the Arjuna Award from President Pratibha Patil.But it proved to be third time lucky for the central defender as he became the first footballer in eight years to receive the award.”I was speechless when I saw so many people cheering for me when I went up to collect my award. Although my parents couldn’t make it, my wife was there with me. I feel the hardwork that I have put in for 12 years bore fruit that day.”When I was receiving the award, my mind went into flashback mode, recollecting all my footballing memories right from the time I first kicked a ball,” he told Mail Today. Hailing from Noamundi in Pashchimi Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, Mondal took to the game at an early age.”We took to playing a game of football whenever we were bored of studying or doing household chores.”The fact that my father, a worker at Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO), played the game further fuelled the urge in me to play the game,” he said.”But it wasn’t until the age of 16 that I took a professional approach towards the game. It was during one of my U-16 national district matches that Ranjan Chowdhury, chief coach of Tata Football Academy (TFA), spotted me.” Mondal feels the time he spent at TFA not only polished his footballing skills, but also helped him in other aspects of life.advertisement”I joined TFA in 1995 and the time I spent there (till 1997) changed my overall approach towards life. Not only did I get the best facilities in the country, but also my academic needs were taken care of,” he said.Mondal credits his family for helping him reach a stage where his services were recognised with an Arjuna Award.”My hometown is a small mining town, TISCO runs the mines. During my childhood, TISCO used to organise a lot of football matches. So I used to participate in most of the matches. This is where my parents’ contribution come in. Although most parents ask their children to concentrate on studies, never did my parents discourage me from playing football.”The only advice that came from them was that I shouldn’t ignore my education as it would stand me in good stead in the future,” he said.The only regret he has is the lack of equipments he encountered before joining TFA. “I have been really content in life. But if I have to lament any particular situation, it was the lack of playing equipments which caused quite a problem. I used to play barefoot as I couldn’t afford football boots. I also played bare-chested on many an occasion as I didn’t have the money to buy football jerseys,” he said.Having played for more than 12 years for India-he debuted in 1998-Mondal feels the current team shares a lot more camaraderie, something which was absent in past teams.”Although I have learnt a lot from all my coaches-starting from Sukhwinder Singh in 1998 to Bob Houghton-I believe the main reason for this team’s success is the team spirit that we share. I felt really bad when Sunil Chhetri wasn’t given the Arjuna Award after being nominated,” he said.”But Chhetri should get disheartened as he still has age on his side and I am sure he will get the award in future.” The fact that Chhetri himself was more than happy that Mondal’s hardwork was being recognised ahead of his own bears testimony to the fact that this present team indeed has a lot of solidarity.