Just when India thought it would be difficult to find a leader like Sunil Chhetri in Indian football, a young bunch of talents has emerged who are ready to take their game to a different level. Chhetri has been the poster boy of Indian football for the past decade, but the ongoing AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates has given us overnight superstars in the likes of Anirudh Thapa, Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh.
Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh were the mainstay in the forward line after the Bhaichung Bhutia era and have been fairly successful at the International stage. Along with Chhetri, they spearheaded the attacking line in the past few years including the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. It was a time when Indian football was on the rise and stormed into the top 100 of the FIFA rankings under the supervision of English gaffer Stephen Constantine.
As India approached closer the continental event, players like Anirudh Thapa, Ashique Kuruniyan, Subhashish Bose and Pritam Kotal came up the ranks. While Jakichand Singh and Udanta Singh were already in the thick of things from their I-League days, while the others hogged the limelight from the Indian Super League. To sum it up, ‘Blue Tigers’ generation next is all set to roar!
A product of the AIFF Elite Academy, Anirudh Thapa was roped in Chennaiyin FC as a replacement for injured Dhanachandra Singh midway through the 2016 ISL season. The humble central midfielder dedicated the goal against Thailand to senior compatriot Sunil Chhetri. His eyes were glued to the Television sets as a schoolboy the last time India participated in the AFC Asian Cup 8 years ago.
Thapa even trained with French Ligue 2 side Metz in a tour sponsored by Indian Super League side Chennaiyin FC back in 2016. The central midfielder has attracted eyeballs during his stint with the South Indian club although he played for I-League outfits Minerva Punjab FC during the 2016-17 seasons. With still a game left, the footballer from Uttarakhand will play a key role in the remainder of India’s campaign in the Arab nation.
A school dropout in the eighth standard to support his family, Ashique Kuruniyan played football in the evening after he returned from work at his father’s sugarcane shop in Kerala. He got a break when he was selected by Vision India, a football scheme by Kerala Football Association, polluting his trade with them until he joined the academy in Pune in 2014.
Two years later he was loaned to Spanish giants Villarreal ‘C’, having trained there for four months but returned owing to a hamstring injury. After playing regularly in the ISL from 2017, he finally made his International debut on June 1, 2018. Known for his speedy runs down the left, the forward is an automatic choice for Constantine’s unit. He impressed during India’s opening match against Thailand at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, a nearly scored in the tie against UAE.
Unlike Ashique and Anirudh, Udanta Singh has been a part of the Indian team for quite some time. Graduating from the Tata Football Academy, he stormed with his electrifying presence during his stay at Bengaluru FC, winning an I-League title, two Federation Cups and a Super Cup with the JSW group owned side.
A special mention to Jackichand Singh who is also a part of the Asian Cup squad and even played as a substitute in the match against UAE. He is one of India’s most talented footballers in recent times, has the capability to outrun his marker with ease similar to Udanta Singh. These players redefine Indian football, gone are the days where top-ranked Asian teams toyed with the Indian team. The ‘Blue Tigers’ are ready to pose a threat to any team in the continent.
The most important fact is that the Indian team is playing eye-pleasing football with a lot of effectiveness, which was absent from the previous team which played in the continental meet eight years back. India might still sneak into the round of 16 with a win against Bahrain in the last group stage clash on Monday evening, but a draw will not help the cause.
“It’s not the Indian team, it’s for the whole of India,” said young Anirudh Thapa after India’s win over Thailand.