My earliest recollection of football was when I would go to watch matches in the Thrissur Municipal Corporation Stadium. We lived in a thatched hut very close to the stadium and my father, Mani, who was football crazy, would take me to the games. Many know the story about how I used to sell soda in the stadium for a couple of years. I did it to make some bucks (about fifty) and also to watch the matches for free. My parents were Dalit daily wage earners, my father worked in a small hotel called Sree Krishna Bhavan and my mother, Kochammu, would help him out. She would also collect old bottles, newspapers and tins to sell in the market. I have known hunger and poverty during my childhood days.
I can’t recollect the name of the school I went to before I joined the Church Mission Society High School in Thrissur in class five. Though I attended class, I promptly failed five times in class five. My classmates ascended to class ten while I was still there. Every year, my new classmates insisted on calling me Vijayan chetta (elder brother) and I would tell them that’s not required. I was really bad in studies and always late for class. I would go for practice to the municipal stadium at six in the morning and then walk into class at around ten. My class teacher would ask me why I was late and I would give the same lame excuse that there was no food in the house and my mother only cooked the rice by 10 am. Sometimes, she would cane me for not studying. Nevertheless, I would walk back to the stadium during lunch break, to go back to playing. I was obsessed with the game. Those days I didn’t even have boots. I was on the school team that went to Kashmir to play a tournament. At the time, my Hindi teacher, who always dressed in white pants and white shirt, taught me a few sentences in Hindi. He also warned me never to ask for “chor” (rice in Malayalam and thief in Hindi) and advised me to ask for “chaval” instead. Years later, he saw a television interview of mine where I conversed in Hindi and he called me to ask where I learnt it. I had quit school in class 8.
In 1981, when I was 12 years old, the sports council of India was holding a three-year camp. It was my father who took me to the camp. I was among the 100 children who applied and one out of the 30 who got selected. Sadly, my father passed away in 1982.
It was Radhakrishnan mash who ensured that I eat three square meals at a vegetarian hotel Thriveni. That was the first time I started to eat all my meals and knew what it was to be full. The camp provided us with eggs, milk and bananas. Soon after, I started playing seven-a-side football and the Rs 30 or Rs 40 I got from each match, I would give to my mother.
“It was my teacher who ensured that I ate three square meals. That was the first time I knew what it was to be full. ”
In 1986, there was a trial for the Kerala Police team and DGP M.K. Joseph recommended my name to CM K. Karunakaran. But I was not yet 18 so I could not be selected. I wanted to go back to playing sevens but the DGP insisted that I remain there. Two years later, in 1989, I was playing for the Indian team and debuted in international football. I played for India till 2003. I remember the time, in 1999, we were playing the SAFF cup (South Asian Football Federation Cup) in Kathmandu. Soon after the game, coach Suki (Sukhwinder Singh) told me that I had shot one of the fastest goals in football—12 seconds. I just said, “fine sir”. I couldn’t comprehend what he meant. Now I hold the third position for the fastest goal in the world and the first in Asian records. Receiving the Indian player of the year in 1993 was a big shock. They had just started giving the award and I was the first to get it. My friends went home to tell my mother as we did not have a phone at home then. I won that award three times. But the Arjuna award took a long time coming. I was disappointed that many of my juniors got it before me. I got it finally in 2003.
It was while I played for Mohun Bagan that I earned the nick name Kalo Hiran (black buck). The fans in Calcutta would call me that. I did not know what it meant and later I learnt that my fans thought I walked like a deer while dribbling. There’s a documentary called Kalo Hiran. As for this FIFA 17, it will do wonders for the Indian team. It will build their confidence. The changes are already visible. Sadly, we did not have such facilities back then.
As told to Minu Ittyipe