IM Vijayan knows better than anyone what a first time FIFA World Cup appearance would mean to Indian football.
It’s been less a target, more an obsession in this country. For so long it was Vijayan, India’s talismanic striker, leading the frontline and carrying the hopes of millions on his broad shoulders.
His own pursuit fell short, even the legendary Bhaichung Bhutia had to retire before India could realise the dream. But to Vijayan’s delight the current crop, under Sunil Chhetri have been showing a lot of promise in recent times.
“Indian football is at its best under the captaincy of Sunil Chhetri,” Vijayan tells The Bridge. “The team has performed amazingly well in recent times, winning and losing some tournaments leading to the Asia Cup.
“They took on the Qatar team right after they won the Asia Cup, and went toe-to-toe with them, snatched a draw, that too in their backyard — it was by no means an easy task. That was Indian football at its best.”
Indian football is at its best under the captaincy of Sunil Chhetri, believes Vijayan (Source: AIFF)
So how close exactly are we to a World Cup qualification? “It’s going to be very tough and we all need a lot of patience and practice to reach that goal,” concedes Vijayan.
“Indian football needs to start its development from the grassroots level. The grassroots level coaching and football schools can change the fate of the sport in India — along with professionalism, commitment. More tournaments can help in achieving that goal, but nevertheless, we as a team need to qualify for the Asia Cup first then the ultimate dream.”
'ISL has changed the perception around Indian football'
The erstwhile great believes that the advent of the Indian Super League (ISL) has helped improve Indian football but it is necessary that more tournaments and games are played. “Earlier, the world was not much aware that Indians played football, but that perception has changed with the ISL,” he says.
“It has helped the players a lot, they have gained maturity, professionalism and experience after playing against international players. They have improved a lot but need to work more and do better. I think, playing with the foreign players in the ISL has actually helped the Indian players. It has helped them improve their style, performance, competitiveness and professionalism. It’s not a small thing to play along with Roberto Carlos, Diego Forlan etc and gain their experience. It has helped our players in the long run.
"At the moment, we lack just not strikers but other key positions also, the main reason being the players are less committed and lack professionalism.
The ISL has helped grow Indian football, according to Vijayan (Source: ISL)
“They have improved a lot because of ISL but need more. The players should see and learn from Chhetri, his professionalism and dedication should be practised by all players. I myself told this to Ashique (Kuruniyan). Fifteen years of dedication is not a small thing, and if the other players followed it then we would have a winning team.
“One more thing I must add, we need more tournaments in the country, more matches. Otherwise, players will not grow. Players from different teams across India like SBI, Titanium, KSEB, Railways are not getting enough opportunities to showcase their talent even though they are as talented and good as some of the ISl and I-League players.”
Vijayan himself had to struggle a lot in his initial days. He was born in poverty and during his childhood, he used to sell soda bottles and cigarettes in Thrissur stadium so that he could watch games and also support his family.
He joined the Kerala Police football team at the age of 17 and played there for four years, but even then, Vijayan struggled to build a house for himself. He made the tough choice of moving to Kolkata to earn a better wage. He would go on to have a hugely successful career, scoring a plethora of goals in domestic as well as international football. In fact, when he hung up his boots, he retired as India’s all time leading scorer. However, he never got the popularity or the fame that he deserved.
“If we had an ISL back in the day, I could have gained, I would have become a better player and maybe, even a world renowned one too. It would have helped not only me but also the others around me. It would have helped me become a better professional player tuning my natural talent better. But I have no regrets,” the 51-year-old concludes.