Social media the other day was replete with good wishes for I M Vijayan who had turned 50, a milestone moment for a man who had been the darling of football fans in the country. Think of Vijayan and what strikes one is the amazing story of a young simple lad, steeped in poverty and a bleak future suddenly given the elixir of life, so to say, through the providential intervention of a large hearted football lover.
The result is the emergence of a class player who not only delighted fans everywhere with his ball skills but rose to become a celebrity and a name to reckon with on the football field. Football saved his life even as the sport discovered a pearl.
Memories go back to the eighties when it all started and as a witness to the happenings as a representative of a leading Newspaper stationed in Kerala, I am a touch moved by nostalgia. Indeed, now looking back, the eighties must have been a special period in the history of sports in Kerala and to that extent India itself.
Aside from Vijayan we also had P.T. Usha also coming up with her many splendoured achievements in athletics in that period to make her a household name in the country. There have been sportspersons of various levels of achievements from Kerala and the state would ever be indebted to them but where Vijayan and Usha stood out was the national impact their efforts had on their respective sport. Not for a moment are the achievements of other worthy talents from the state being belittled by this statement, but Vijayan and Usha are a representative of them, and certainly have carved a niche for themselves and how!
One common factor that linked the life of these two stalwarts was struggle. Usha struggled in a world of athletics which had already advanced and it was her sheer fixity of purpose, hard work and sacrifice that drove her along to do what no other Indian women athlete had attained till then. The great woman had always felt her's was a lonesome struggle in the journey of excellence.
As for Vijayan it was a struggle for survival in the midst of poverty. A youngster who sold small eatables in the Thrissur Corporation stadium for his laboured help (contribution) to his hard-working mother's monthly income, it was passion for football that ensured he did not stray away to unwanted spheres. A passion that he developed watching the action in the stadium and the occasional moments he could get with the football at his feet. It was just his fortune that someone like Mr M.K. Joseph, the former DGP of Kerala found him, took interest and adopted him in the Kerala Police. The rest as they say is history.
Nobody believed then that this youngster, all arms and limbs had in him to confront the complexities of a footballer's requirements. Even Rustam Akhramov, the Uzbek coach once of Indian football, was not convinced with what he saw initially of Vijayan as compared to Bhaichung Bhutia, the man with whom the former formed a classic combination upfront to befuddle many an opposition on the football field. But the Uzbek was to correct his assessment later after seeing the 'silent assassin' at work.
What Vijayan may have lacked with his thin frame was a field-presence as compared to the flexible Bhutia, whose tearing runs were always a delight to behold. But both proved they were not just supreme talents but remarkably astute players. Timing was Vijayan's forte as he scripted several memorable moments in his illustrious career including the fastest goal by an Indian in an international match.
If it was Kerala Police that opened the gates to prosperity for Vijayan, not to forget making him an accomplished footballer at the hands of coach E. Sridharan, then it was the Santosh Trophy national championship that made him a hot property in Indian football. The foray to the Kolkata league helped him strengthen his resolve and skills, thanks to the level of competition and expectations, apart from making him the 'darling Bejoyan' that he became popularly known as for his exploits in those days in the Kolkata maidans.
Yet for all this few would have had the kind of experience, call it turbulence as this Thrisoor native. Doted by his adoring fans in Kerala he was also scorned at, at one time before getting accepted again as their unforgettable darling! The scorn came when he appeared for Bengal in the National championship, during the times when he was a full-time Kolkata club player and had the misfortune of playing against Kerala. He took that reverse in his stride, not losing perspective for he knew as in life so in sports, everything will pass. So it did.
Few sportspersons have gone through such an enduring run in his or her chosen sport as Vijayan has had. Give him a football and even today, we hear he can teach a lesson or two on dribbling to talents even half his age. The dabble in films must have polished his image further but heart of heart, Vijayan remains a footballer, who would not mind even today in straining a little in a Sevens contest, something that he used to hold dear to his heart.
Yet all for this, the underlining factor in the growth of footballers like Vijayan and his ilk was the opportunity that existed then, in the form of tournaments, healthy club status and most importantly a vibrant Santosh trophy championship. Ironically tournaments have vanished, clubs have begun losing ground and Santosh trophy is on the verge of an uncertain future! Are we seeing the end of an era?