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Sports

Indian duo Nirmal Chettri and Godwin Franco relish trial chance at Fortuna Düsseldorf

If enthusiasm alone was grounds for a contract, India's Nirmal Chettri and Godwin Franco would be joining Fortuna Düsseldorf. But whatever comes from the duo's trial at the club, they say it has been a success.

Armed with a firm desire to learn, a clear appreciation of the opportunity afforded to them and an inspirational mantra or two, Chettri and Franco are realistic about the chances of returning to the club in a more permanent fashion.

They will likely know more come January's transfer window or perhaps by the end of the 2. Bundesliga's 2013-14 season. Currently, Fortuna might be rather preoccupied with arresting their worrying dip in form, after their relegation hangover extended to life in the second tier.

But neither the club's struggles nor Fortuna's single-digit temperatures could cool the duo's spirits when they sat down with DW at F95's ESPRIT Arena.

A handful of days in to their week-long stay at the club, which ended last Wednesday, their almost child-like enthusiasm for their opportunity was clear. Underneath, however, they also acknowledged the wider consequences of their time at Fortuna.

Blazing a trail

India is the second-most populous country on earth, with more than 1.2 billion people. Remarkably, however, it has no local-born senior players of note playing abroad.

Nirmal Chettri and Godwin Franco, two Indian footballers, pose outside Fortuna Düsseldorf's ESPRIT Stadium. Photo: Chris Punnakkatt​u Daniel

Chettri (L) and Franco (R) would like nothing more than to make the ESPRIT Arena their home.

A stigma exists for many in India that players produced by the country - ranked a lowly 154th by FIFA - are simply not good enough to succeed elsewhere, with the respective travails of adored duo Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri overseas adding stock to the doubters' notion. It shows how far the Indian game has not come since 1936, when Mohammed Salim - having trialed in bare feet - became the first Indian player to join a European club in Glasgow's Celtic.

Consequently, Franco and Chettri's decision to try their hand at Fortuna was written off by some even before it began. But the pair is determined to show what the benefit of their time in Germany can have for their own games and that of India.

"I believe in one thing," said midfielder Franco, the oldest of the duo, at 27. "I learned a saying that is very important: 'A man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to leave the sight of shore.' So if you don't have the courage to go beyond and big …"

"… We go into the big seas, see what the big fish is all about. Whether you want to be a small fish in a small pond, or go and find the big fish in the big ocean. That's what we've come here for.

"Indian footballers should come here, that is very important. When we get the opportunities and we don't [take] it, other players won't come. Ever since we came we get so many phone calls from other footballers. They are excited now, you know, to try in Europe and at least come here and train, especially the younger generation.

"Before … some never had the courage and they don't want to risk it. We got the opportunity, and we are going to give our best."

It seems like an unfair weight for the duo to shoulder, but Chettri agrees. "It's always easy to walk on the path we have walked," said the 23-year-old defender, who has nine international caps for India.

"Sometimes we have to walk that route we haven't walked. I think it's a new journey for Indian football. At least we feel that we can play here. It's just a matter of time and the luck … If [we make it], definitely others will follow the path."

Bend it like Zidane

It is Franco's third time training with a club in Germany, though Fortuna is a considerable step up after previous stints with Landesliga outfit Borussia Lindenthal-Hohenlind, of Cologne.

Confidently spoken and modeling his style of play on France legend and former Ballon d'Or winner Zinedine Zidane, Franco has returned to I-League club Dempo SC after completing his trial.

Chettri is clubless for now but is not short of domestic options. Softly spoken but just as polite as his counterpart, Chettri acknowledges that, at 177cm (around 5 feet 10 inches), he is undersized for a central defender. He is, however, "very confident" he can do a job in any position across the back four.

He is also realistic about his chances of earning a deal at Fortuna: "At least, if I don't get a contract, at least I learn something from here," he said.

Nirmal Chettri (L) and Godwin Franco (R), two Indian footballers, in action during their trial at Fortuna Düsseldorf. Photo: Chris Punnakkatt​u Daniel

The duo emphasized how much they had taken during their stay at the club.

"I think that will definitely help me to grow as a footballer, because in football the learning process is never-ending … You get to learn every day, and I'm sure once I return back from here I learn something and definitely that will help me to play in India and anywhere."

Just being at Fortuna is a point of pride for the duo: "To be a trialist [here] is a massive thing for an Indian footballer. That itself is a big achievement," Franco said.

Football finds its feet

While football may never evoke the frenzied passion the country has for cricket, the game is growing in India, according to Franco. And, on the back of the success of Munich and Borussia Dortmund, German football "has a big connection with India." Franco says even the name Fortuna Düsseldorf requires little explanation.

Both believe they could adapt to the pressures of the German game. Chettri got a taste of German football while with an India youth team on tour in 2007, and was also part of his nation's side that took on Bayern Munich in a high-profile exhibition match in New Delhi in 2012.

Indian football might not have the quality of its European counterparts, but Franco believes the pressure to perform is not inferior. He points to the 120,000 people that cram into Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium for city derbies between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.

He again employs a metaphor to prove his point - that he and Chettri, if afforded the chance, could find a place in the German game.

"[They say] if you can drive cars in Kolkata in India, you can drive them anywhere," he said with a smile.