Anirudh Thapa has been an anomaly in more ways than one. Sometimes, for thriving as an Indian midfielder despite having a smaller frame but mostly due to his sublime skills and relentless energy.
In his school days, Thapa was the only junior to play with the seniors and also win awards. He was an obvious talent and it didn’t take long for Thapa and his family to realise that he was meant to be a football player.
At the age of ten, the young Dehradun native shifted base to Chandigarh’s St Stephen’s academy to aid his growth as a footballer. Staying away from family, and having to juggle studies and football all on his own was tough, but playing with older boys during his childhood had taught him a thing or two about overcoming challenges.
“It was a tough time in my life, staying away from home, but it was one where I matured as a person, learning to do things all on my own,” Thapa told Scroll.in, reflecting on his time in the Chandigarh academy.
The hardships, though, couldn’t keep his talent under wraps. At the age of 14, Thapa was selected in the AIFF Elite academy where his dreams of becoming a professional footballer took a giant stride towards realisation.
The physical challenge
Playing for the junior national teams at the U-16 and U-18 levels, Thapa seemed to be on the right track, but in truth the challenges of transitioning from junior to the senior level were getting loftier by the day, quite literally too.
Thapa thanks to his smaller stature was no match to his peers in terms of strength, physicality and height. His obvious physical deficiencies meant doubt crept in his mind.
“I looked at the other midfielders in the academy. They were all big and strong and even they struggled quite a lot. I used to wonder how will I ever be able to make it when such strong players don’t have it all their way,” Thapa revealed.
“I was worried as I had put all my efforts into making a career in football and it appeared that I didn’t have the right attributes to be successful,” he added.
However, Thapa hung on, putting his head down and training hard. As days passed, his reservations diminished and confidence in his abilities grew.
“I had to keep going. There was no choice. But as days passed, I realised that I had to focus on my strengths and work on them. I was quick, agile, sharp and had good vision. I worked a lot on reacting quicker on the football field and I managed to carve a place for myself,” the midfielder said.
Making a mark at senior level
Indian Super League side Chennaiyin signed him up in 2016, but it wasn’t until the 2017-18 season that Thapa was afforded a chance to make his mark.
The youngster was one of seven midfielders in the squad that included three quality foreign imports. But Chennaiyin coach John Gregory decided to utilise Thapa’s energy and sharpness on the ball by using him as an impact substitute in their games.
Thapa almost always replaced Bikramjit Singh in the Chennaiyin midfield at around the hour mark in games in what was to be the most common substitution in the league that season. It was frequent as it was successful.
The diminutive midfielder scored twice and assisted once during his several cameo appearances that season as Chennaiyin were crowned champions. His influence grew as the season progressed. Thapa scored the all-important away goal for the Super Machans in their 1-1 draw against FC Goa in the semi-final first leg.
“A lot of credit for the player I am today goes to coach Gregory. He trusted me a lot in that title-winning season when he used me as a substitute. Those performances finally convinced me that I could cut it at this level,” Thapa stated.
The impressive performances earned the youngster a call-up to the senior national team. As then coach Stephen Constantine was readying a team to play in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, the Chennaiyin midfielder perfectly fit his requirements of a midfielder who could relentlessly run to close down opponents, possess the quality to initiate offensive transitions and also bomb forward to link up with the strikers.
Thapa was a vital cog in the Indian team that earned their first win at the AFC Asian Cup in 55 years, scoring in the 4-1 win over Thailand.
Complete midfielder in making?
Under new coach Igor Stimac, who wants his team to keep the ball and pass it around, Thapa is able to utilise his technical quality on the ball to greater effect. Thus, it is of little surprise that the Chennaiyin midfielder has been central to the new national coach’s plans.
A regular with club and country, Thapa though is in no mood to rest on his laurels. Despite his technical improvement, the 21-year-old’s lack of physicality remains a weakness at the international level. He may have overcome those obstacles to become a professional player but he isn’t ready to stop there.
“I want the opponent to be wary of me and not think of me as someone who could be bullied of the ball. I want him to fully understand that he is also in a physical battle with me when I’m on the field,” Thapa said.
“Hence, that’s an area I’m working hard to improve on as I feel it is the weaker side of my game. I know that my strength is not my physicality, but I also don’t want it to be my weakness,” he added.
Deep-lying playmaker, attacking midfielder, box-to-box midfielder and as a winger. There is not a single midfield role that Thapa has not featured in for his club and country in the last two years. His versatility is a big advantage he has over his peers. By adding the physical element to his game, Thapa wants to be the complete midfielder Indian football has been crying out for. Rule out this pocket-sized dynamo at your own peril.