Sunil Chhetri, IM Vijayan and an evening of Indian football nostalgia
On May 10, Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri pulled off the near impossible -- he got former striker (and generally reticent ) IM Vijayan to do a lengthy Instagram chat, discussing the latter's stellar career for club and country.
While Chhetri started his career with Mohun Bagan in 2002, Vijayan played his last international the following year, and both players expressed regret at not getting to play with each other during Sunday's chat. Here are the most interesting talking points from the exchange.
Vijayan's humble beginnings
Vijayan, 51, spoke of his humble beginnings, growing up in a house that was a part of the football stadium campus in Thrissur, known for hosting big matches, including Santosh Trophy games. "There was no money to buy tickets. The matches used to be in the afternoon under the sun. There's a soda factory near the ground. The spectators would want to have soda and smoke cigarettes," remembered Vijayan. "Four-five of us went and started selling soda and cigarettes. I used to earn 10 rupees (about 13 cents now) and give it to my mother."
Vijayan said his father, himself a football fanatic, inculcated the interest for the game in him as a child, but died even as he was starting to take the first steps in his football career. "My greatest regret is that my father didn't live to see me become IM Vijayan the footballer," he said.
Why he didn't leave India
Chhetri asked Vijayan why he refused offers from Thailand and Malaysia while at his peak. Vijayan explained that part of his hesitation came from the reaction he got from fans in Kerala when he moved from Kerala Police to Mohun Bagan for the first time in 1991. "I left Kerala because I didn't have a home of my own. When I went to Kolkata for a better financial future, I had to face a lot of flak from supporters. This is the love of the fans, though. I was afraid of cheating my supporters again," said Vijayan.
He also said going abroad and living alone was a difficult decision to contemplate on his own. "Back then, I just wanted to play in India. My friends -- Jo Paul [Ancheri], Carlton [Chapman] and I were all playing together. Leaving everything behind and going abroad, that too with my limited English [would have been tough].
Watch a movie, get ready for a game with 15 minutes to kick-off, score a goal AND win the game?- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) May 11, 2020
Only I.M. Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri could do it ��️
(via chetri_sunil11/Instagram) pic.twitter.com/BPwYQtmQyX
"It's easier when you and Bhaichung [Bhutia] went abroad, because you had people around to ask. I don't know how things would have turned out if I had gone there, but I am happy with what I achieved in India."
Capers with Jo Paul Ancheri
Vijayan also shared some funny anecdotes about his friendship with long-term teammate Jo Paul Ancheri, most notably an incident from the national camp, when Uzbek coach Rustam Akhramov decided to pair the footballers up with the boxers for actual bouts to toughen them up.
"I was dodging, and told the boxer to please hit me only on the shoulder, and gently. I was able to adjust somewhat, but he didn't appreciate that I had tried to talk my way out of it," recalled Vijayan. "Jo Paul was paired with the best boxer in India. Around that time, Mike Tyson was very popular in India, and especially his upper cut. Jo Paul tried the upper cut, but the other guy dodged. Then the boxer connected with a straight punch. Jo Paul was then boxing with one arm nursing his bruised jaw. It was so funny to watch."
'Bhaichung considered me an older brother'
Vijayan's most profitable strike partnership for India came alongside Bhaichung Bhutia. "The best part about our partnership was that neither of us was jealous of the other. If he has a 70 percent chance of scoring, then it would be a mistake on my part of try and score myself," said Vijayan, who also mentioned he always enjoyed setting up goals. "The funny thing is the newspaper the next day would record who scored, but not who provided the pass.
"He [Bhaichung] came into East Bengal at age 17, and I was at Mohun Bagan. We played a few pre-season friendlies in Siliguri, and he and I would share a berth on the train there. He has always considered me an older brother, and we are very close even today."
Dream Sevens team
Vijayan's team had Bhutia, Dinesh Nair as goalkeeper, defenders U Sharafali and M Suresh, and Ancheri in midfield joining him and Chhetri. When Chhetri promised to put this team together at the earliest possible, Vijayan made a better suggestion. "We can organise this match for coronavirus relief."