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JOURNEYMAN: From Barcelona to Bengaluru, the story of Nili Perdomo

JOURNEYMAN: From Barcelona to Bengaluru, the story of Nili Perdomo

In India, people admire Lionel Messi and Sunil Chhetri. But not many people have a chance to play alongside both of them.

Bengaluru FC’s new signing Nili went from stealing food as a child in Las Palmas to training alongside Messi, Neymar and Suarez at Barcelona. That fairytale didn’t have a happy ending, but the 25-year-old is at peace with himself.

The arms of Bengaluru FC’s new signing Francisco Jose Perdomo Borges, commonly known as Nili, are covered in tattoos. There is a lion, to denote that he is the king of the football jungle. A practicing Christian, Nili has made space for a couple of Buddha portraits. The number 29 signifies his childhood jersey number.

JOURNEYMAN: From Barcelona to Bengaluru, the story of Nili Perdomo

A grand tattoo of the Greek god Zeus, however, stands out as the most significant. “Zeus is for my grandfather, because he is the god of all gods,” Nili says.

It is evident that Nili, born and raised in the Spanish city of Las Palmas, owes a great debt to his grandfather, Rafael Perdomo, who saved him from a tumultuous childhood.

"My life as a kid was not easy. My father and mother fought all the time. When I was seven, I moved out with my mother. But she had problems with alcohol and drugs. She used to hit me a lot, so I was forced to live on the streets. I didn’t have any money. I would wander around and peer through house windows. If I saw fruits or food inside, I would steal it. Those were desperate times,” Nili recalls.

Just when his young life was spiraling out of control, his grandfather stepped in. “My grandfather is my angel — he is the most important person in my life. When I was 10, he took me in and cared for me,” Nili says.

To give Nili a positive outlet, Rafael got him to enroll in the Union Deportiva Las Palmas football academy. Nili — a versatile footballer who can play on the wings or in midfield — excelled at the sport and earned a spot in the senior Las Palmas reserves side in 2013.

His big break came three years later, when he joined Barcelona at the age of 22. Nili was now playing alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez. “It is a luxury to train with guys like Messi. You can learn so much in every single minute of training. Off the field, Neymar is like me — he likes to have fun. Messi is more quiet and serious,” Nili says.

But the dream move did not last long. Nili managed just a solitary appearance — as a substitute in a Copa del Rey match — before signing with lower division side Albacete Balompie.

Nili, who describes himself as a simple small-town boy, could not handle the pressure of expectations at Barcelona. “When I was in Las Palmas, I played football because I loved the sport. In Barcelona, you need to win every single game and every single title. If you miss a pass in Las Palmas, the coach would say, ‘No problem. Keep going. You can do better next time’. In Barcelona, it was different. If you cannot maintain a very high standard, then someone else will take your place,” Nili says.

JOURNEYMAN: From Barcelona to Bengaluru, the story of Nili Perdomo

His short stint at Barca wasn’t all bad. Nili takes great pride in telling the story of how Messi made his grandfather a happy man. “My grandfather, for the first time in his life, traveled from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands to the mainland. He came to see me train. After training, I asked Messi if he could take a photo with my grandfather. Messi readily agreed, and even gave my grandfather his jersey as a gift. That meant the world to me,” Nili says.

In 2018, Nili left Spain to play for the Greek side Platanias. A chat with an old friend, Odisha FC striker Aridane Santana, convinced him to make the move to Bengaluru FC. “Aridane and I played together in Albacete; he also lived in the Canary Islands. We are like brothers. He told me that I should join BFC because they are an established Indian club. He felt I could perform well in the Indian Super League,” Nili says.

These are early days in the Nili-BFC alliance, but the player has already experienced a few highs. Earlier this month, Nili got the chance to travel to Thimphu for an AFC Cup preliminary-stage clash against Paro FC. For Nili, Bhutan felt like his spiritual home. “I have two Buddha tattoos. Bhutan has a rich Buddhist history. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to Bhutan. I never thought it would happen. Thailand maybe, but Bhutan… never,” Nili says.

Having overcome the trials and tribulations of the past, Nili is now truly at peace. “I was once out on the streets, but now my life is great. My wife and daughter — they are my main motivation now. Whenever I do something silly, my wife pulls me back on track. You need someone like that in your life to take you in the right direction. My grandfather played that role when I was young. I will do all I can to support my family,” Nili says.