As we step into football season with the 2010 FIFA World cup, I thought I will reproduce this blog that I wrote on ndtv.com on July 18, 2006, the year of the last World Cup. I travelled for a week through the length of Kerala, from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi to Thrissur to Malappuram to Kozhikode that year, to capture the mood and the colour, the smell and the sound of the football-crazy state during the World Cup, for a half-hour documentary. And in Thrissur, I met I M Vijayan, arguably one of the most popular and colourful players India has produced. This is recounting that meeting at the town’s rather run-down stadium, early Sunday morning.
By T S Sudhir
Driven by passion, impulsive like a child, rugged and cunning on the ground. That would aptly describe the man more popularly known as the ‘Black Pearl of Indian football’, I M Vijayan.
We had just miked him up at the Municipal Stadium in Thrissur town of Kerala for an interview, when he looked longingly over my shoulder and made a child-like request.
“Can I go and play for 10 minutes and then do the interview?”
“Let’s finish the interview first,” I said gently but firmly. “Because you will be sweating once you play and that won’t look very good on camera”.
“But these guys will go away and then I will have no one to play with,” he persisted.
“Can’t we ask them to wait for some time? How can they say ‘No’ to Vijayan,” I asked.
Vijayan said he was not too sure but nevertheless agreed to do the interview first, keeping an eye all the time on moves on the football ground.
We started talking about the game that transformed an eight-year-old, selling club soda for 10 paise a bottle, into the country’s highest-paid footballer. It had all happened here at the Municipal Stadium, the same stands where he sold soda for four years. Several years later, he displayed his fizz in front of the same crowd in a Santosh Trophy match in Thrissur. One of his most special moments, says Vijayan. “Mera willpower bahut strong hai” (I have great willpower),” said Vijayan.
His passion for the game was all he had, to learn to work magic with his feet. As if the ball was the world at his feet, moving to his command. Even at 37, the touch of the genius was very much visible, as he played with the youngsters after the interview (yes, they did stay on!).
I noticed how he dribbled past each of the defenders, like a magician and then had the audacity to stop for a couple of seconds at the goalkeeper’s post, teasing the goalie as if to say, “Stop me, if you can”. The two seconds did no good for the goalie, as Vijayan coolly pushed the ball in. GOAL!!!
I could see why former coach Stephen Constantine had called him the ‘Fox in the box’. From the football ground, when he moved on to the silver screen, his first director Jayaraj called him ‘an international face’. Vijayan says with a chuckle, “Nowadays, I do only villain roles. The directors think I look typically like one.”
Vijayan has just finished shooting for a Tamil film called Thimmaru, with actor Vishal. If the movie becomes a hit, Vijayan could be Tamil cinema’s next Big Bad Man.
But drive around Thrissur and you realise Vijayan is actually a hero in these parts. How else do you describe the 8th-class dropout who is now a brand ambassador for a newspaper group as well as two different brands of consumer goods! Vijayan’s hoardings are all over Thrissur district.
In a land where people worship their soccer players, Vijayan truly is king. His rugged, almost West Indian kind of looks are as acceptable as Malayalam superstar Mohanlal’s impish smile. The endorsements, Vijayan says, are a desperate move to raise money for his football academy. He started his academy in 2000, only to close it in November last year because of a lack of funds. Vijayan gives himself another six months to start again. “Is saal tho pucca start karega main (I’ll definitely reopen it this year),” he says.
It’s obvious the man is passionate about football. But money has always played spoilsport. Dearth of money forced Vijayan to abandon his home state to shift to Mohun Bagan in Kolkata in 1991. “Here people called me all kinds of names then. Even a cheat.”
He says it hurt but he understands the public sentiment. Perhaps they were right in their own way, he says. After all, football-crazy Keralites could not digest the fact that their ‘best’ was ‘betraying’ them for money.
‘Darling Bijoyan’ as Vijayan was called by his Bengali fans, today runs a company which is into selling sports equipment. He says football in India needs an urgent makeover, and many many more ‘crazy for football’ Vijayans.
When I was saying goodbye to Vijayan, a smart-looking police officer walked into the stadium. “Yeh hamara goalkeeper tha (He was our goalkeeper)”, is how Vijayan introduced him to me. The rank of the senior officer obviously of no relevance to Vijayan. All that matters is football.