From True Bangkok United Football Club’s youth team, to beyond.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
Euphoria and passion – these have always been the feelings I’ve associated with any professional sport, even as someone who’s quite content to watch from the sidelines of any and all sports-related activity. When the FIFA World Cup rolls round every four years, the names of the current football greats – Messi, Ronaldo, Mbappe, even Neymar – are suddenly ubiquitous, relegated to the status of national heroes. But from the outside looking in, it’s too easy to see the glamour and not the dedication and (often literal) blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to make it in the big leagues – or as I’m informed, the premier leagues in football. 17-year-old Arjan Ahluwalia, aspiring professional football player, gave me a peek behind the curtain of what this is like.
“Football to me is everything; it’s my life and who I am,” Arjan explains to me on one of the rare days that he’s not training with True Bangkok United Football Club, one of the Thai League 1 teams. “Every day, I either have a ball at my feet, and on the days that I don’t have training, I work on the skills and aspects I must improve on,” he adds on, and even I get a kick out of hearing his passion for the sport.
Born and raised in Thailand, he walks me through the ways that he’s dedicated his formative years to The Beautiful Game, and how it’s helped him become the person he is today: “By playing football from a very young age, I was able to adapt to St Andrews International School Bangkok, which I joined in 2012. Football helped me make new friends instantly.” Conversely, he tells me, being a Thai-Indian footballer, a rare sight in professional Thai teams, has also been a challenge that has moulded his character today. “I definitely got looks when I went to play for different Thai teams,” he admits. “But I believe that with talent and hard work, you can change those looks of confusion to looks that say, ‘Wow!’ However, this comes with a lot of dedication and commitment, which I’m lucky that I’ve learned from the Thai-Indian community.”
I find out that not only has this scored him the impressive accolade of having been accepted into Bangkok United’s youth team, an impressive achievement at his age, but it has also given him the opportunity to try out for Real Murcia, a Division 2 Spanish professional team. I ask him about the grit and determination that it took to get him here, and he tells me more about how his love for the game makes the sacrifices worth it, and his desire to inspire the Thai-Indian youth to reach – or kick – for the stars.
What started your interest in football, and what made you decide to pursue it professionally?
When I was younger, what feels like a million years ago, my dad used to take me to football classes with a team called Kiddy Kicks. Afterwards, watching football games would give me a rush of emotions; I used to think to myself, “imagine 50 thousand fans screaming my name!” That’s when the realisation hit me that this was what I wanted; when the desire started rushing through my veins.
At the age of 14, I played my first final inside of a stadium for a team called FC Bangkok. Our opposition scored first, then close to the end of the game, I scored an equaliser which then led our team to penalties. I remember the deciding penalty in which they had to score to win – and they did. It hurt! But failing always helps you develop as a person. I learned from that day that there is winning, and then there is learning. From that day onwards, I worked on myself, and then I went on to trial for my first professional team, True Bangkok United Football Club.
What has your training schedule been like since, and what part of a ‘normal’ teenage life have you had to sacrifice to make this dream a reality?
Bangkok United trains around five times per week, including a game every week. It was different; it was harder than usual. In fact, by the end of each training week, I began to burn out. But as time went on, I started to get the hang of it, and all it took was two weeks before they said yes to me. After joining the team and receiving the kit, I was overwhelmed with emotions. I made my family proud, which is always my target, as they mean everything to me. My friends were so happy when they got the news, and I have to thank them for always supporting me too.
As someone who is in high school, the challenges are extremely difficult, as there is a lot of pressure on me to have passing grades and maintain a good social life, whilst striving for greatness in the aspect of life that I am in love with. However, I believe my passion and desire are outmatched, and that’s what’s important. While there are many talented footballers in Thailand, talent is nothing without hard work and determination.
International talent scouts are not as prevalent in Thailand as in countries like America – do you believe this is standing in the way of your and other youth’s opportunities to play abroad professionally, or to get sports scholarships?
It’s true that international scouts are not as prevalent in Thailand, compared to the US and countries in Europe. This is a factor stopping many talented players in Thailand because, from personal experience, I can confidently say that Thai footballers are at their peak at the age of 14. If there are more scouts in Thailand, I guarantee that there would be more Thai footballers playing professionally in Europe, as in Thailand I feel like the facilities are nowhere near as good as professional teams’ facilities there. Having said this, while the lack of international scouts in Thailand is definitely a problem, that doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions. Luckily, the world has now been introduced to social media, where you can post all your highlights; or you could also contact agencies and send them your highlights and CV (a personal portfolio that contains what type of player you are).
Despite these setbacks, you were called to try out for a professional team in Spain. Tell us about how that opportunity came about, what the process is like, and your plans moving forward if you are accepted.
I have always been looking for methods to go to Europe to play football, and finally, I was lucky enough to stumble upon an opportunity. An old coach of mine reached out to me and said there was an opportunity in Spain, with a team called Real Murcia, although the team I would be playing for would be the Under 19s Liga Nacional. Without any hesitation, I seized that opportunity with all of the hunger that has been churning inside of me ever since I was a child. When I got back from Spain, I got a call from my old coach and he told me, “Real Murcia liked you and wants you to go back when you are 18.” I knew that it was finally my time to show everyone what I’m capable of.
I’m almost done with high school, so I haven’t yet come to a final decision on what my plans are for the future. I would say that trying out for this team was both my biggest challenge and biggest achievement, the former because adapting to a new country and environment is difficult. In fact, trying to understand another language during training was quite funny, as I shared many good moments with the team bytrying to respond to them in Spanish. Overall, it was a good experience, and I had many stories to tell my family and friends when I came back.
As kids of Asian parents, we often receive a lot of pressure to follow what some would deem the typical academic path – becoming a doctor, lawyer, etc. Have you felt this in your life, and how have you dealt with it? Any advice for others going through the same thing?
Whilst growing up I had known the typical set of Asian parents, who wanted their kids to go down the educational route, I was fortunate enough to have the greatest parents on earth, as they supported me with my decisions completely. They never pressured me to be good at something I was not interested in, because they understand that once you lose interest in something, you wouldn’t want to continue down thatspecific path.
My two biggest inspirations are my mum and my dad. My mum is a huge part of why I am the person I am today, because although I always saw her suffering with her back problems, she never gave up; she fought through her pain by exercising every day and strengthening muscles that she had never used before. This inspired me to never give up in life, no matter how hard something is. My dad is a huge inspiration to me because he helped me build my mental strength, which is vital in this day and age because it helps determine how one handles stress. It helps you make healthy choices through the dark times of life, and helps you remember that at the end of a storm, there is a golden sky.
Any other advice to the Thai-Indian youth who may want to follow in your footsteps?
The biggest advice I would like to give to up-and-coming footballers is to never give up. Always strive for what you love, no matter what it is, because you can do whatever you set your mind to.