When Indian national team coach Igor Stimac told Amarjit Singh Kiyam that he would be making in his debut at the King’s Cup opener against Curacao as India trailed 0-3 at half-time, the midfielder couldn’t warm up properly. Amarjit was so overwhelmed thinking about what kind of performance he would come up with. For sure, there was pressure on the young lad.

Among the six Indian players who were handed debuts that day, Amarjit was the youngest one and the first player born in the 21st century to play for the senior side.

India could not turn around the result that day despite a promising second-half display but Amarjit was the cynosure of all eyes, showing his quality in the few minutes he got – making tidy passes, winning the ball against opponents technically and physically better than him. Even Stimac couldn’t stop praising him, picking the teenager as his Player of the Match.

That overwhelming feeling was ever so present since he got called up to the senior team camp ahead of the King’s Cup. Amarjit vividly remembers scrolling through his phone when he was suddenly added to a Whatsapp group comprising of senior team players. The realisation that he had made the cut to the biggest stage had still not sunk in.

“I couldn’t believe what happened,” Amarjit told Scroll.in. “Even before I went for the camp, being added to that Whatsapp group as a different feeling. There were butterflies in my stomach. Chhetri bhai, Gurpreet bhai, Udanta bhai, all were there.”

An unfulfilled dream

It was understandable why Amarjit was so excited. Two years after captaining the India U-17 team at the World Cup, this was the moment he was waiting for since he took up the game, inspired by his brother Umakanta. Amarjit was youngest of three siblings raised in Thoubal, Manipur and the fact that his brother represented India at the junior level, helped him choose a similar career. Umakanta would get his jerseys home and Amarjit would stare at them in awe.

“I used to watch his name on the jersey with the India logo and the Nike branding, it provided a different feel. I wanted that,” Amarjit said.

A serious knee injury coupled with health problems meant that Umakanta had to cut short his football career. After that, Amarjit made up his mind to carry forward his brother’s unfilled dream of playing football for India. He started growing aware of how football could not only help him build a promising career but also support his family, who struggled to make ends meet.

Amarjit’s father toiled hard as a farmer and during the off-season, as a carpenter. His mother would leave the house as early as 3.30am from Thoubal to Imphal, and sell fish door-to-door, only returning after selling the stock. Amarjit recalls that on occasions, she would arrive as late as 7 pm, due to the low frequency of buses and Magic autos in Thoubal.

“There was not much financial support but they supported me from their heart. My parents sacrificed a lot,” Amarjit recalled.

Amarjit would play his football in Thoubal’s Haokha Mamang village on a five-acre field, trained by uncle Diben Thoujam, the father of midfielder Jeakson Singh (also part of India’s U-17 World Cup squad), for around four years. He would never shy away from playing against boys twice his age, just to let go of the fear.

He could’ve chosen the easier route to play for a club in Manipur and stay close to his family. But, like Umakanta, who completed his schooling at St Stephens Academy in Chandigarh, Amarjit also decided it was best for him to follow a similar path.

When Umakanta’s coach at the St Stephens Academy joined the Chandigarh Football Academy, Amarjit travelled along with Jeakson Singh in 2011 to appear for trials. Reaching Chandigarh was a task. His parents booked flight tickets because of the dangers posed by landslides in Manipur while travelling by road. After great difficulty, the tickets were somehow arranged.

“I had this in mind, if I leave Manipur, I’ll evolve into a better player,” Amarjit said. “In Manipur, I would not be able to fully concentrate on football alongside providing money for my family. I knew the conditions were not feasible at home but it was in my mind I just wanted to play.”

Amarjit primarily played as a winger and a striker but it wasn’t until he moved to Chandigarh that he switched his position. In the second season of the 2014 Subroto Cup, coach Harjinder Singh converted him to a midfielder during an exposure trip to Goa where CFA played the All India Football Federation’s U-16 team. They won one match and drew another, and Amarjit was among the few boys who impressed the AIFF scouts.

Within a year, he became the first player to lead India at a Fifa event after winning a democratic voting system; his teammates were asked to nominate their pick as captain. The youngster’s stock has risen exponentially since then, despite rejecting offers from Indian Super League clubs and leading the Indian Arrows (AIFF’s developmental side) in the I-League for two years. He is now a vital cog in the senior set-up.

“When I signed for Arrows, I started getting my salary of Rs 50,000 per month. The way my family members started talking to me, it suddenly changed. There were smiles on faces and I loved seeing that,” he said.

He added, “The big difference from then [the U-17 World Cup] and now is that I have improved as a professional. What matters is how you take care of your body – rest, diet and sleep. I am trying to learn something every day and finding ways to improve myself.”

Among Indian midfielders, Amarjit had played most minutes under Stimac before an untimely hand injury saw him ruled out of India’s World Cup qualifiers. The absence of someone like Amarjit to screen the defense and provide stability to the midfield was too big a void to fill for the Blue Tigers as India failed to win even a single match.

Stimac’s backing of Amarjit shows how the Croatian picks his team based on merit and form rather than reputation. The youngster has come of age with his intelligent reading the game, great composure on the ball and the ability to shield it even in the tightest of spaces. Amarjit doesn’t want to break the belief Stimac has given him.

“To play in that position which I play, you need great character and a strong mindset,” he said of his role under Stimac. “He wants things simple. Not to do anything extra on your own and work hard equally off the ball. Make good movements and play quick one-touch passes.”

Born leader

Ever since his injury, Amarjit made it clear to return back hungrier. He has faced such adversities before, but the youngster has now learned to take it in his stride. Right since the day he was admitted to the hospital, even Amarjit demanded the same food as the senior team, underlining his dedication. The youngster, now with Jamshedpur FC, has completed his rehab and has worked his way back into the starting eleven under Antonio Iriondo.

“I felt sad. I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but my mood was off,” said Amarjit. “I missed that feeling. The coach and senior players believed in me and even then I couldn’t make it. It was difficult but I’ve realised its part and parcel of the game. The bad thing about me is that I feel very low and short of confidence. Now, I’ve learned to handle these things. I pray and meditate at times.”

A shy and reserved person off the field, Amarjit becomes a vocal leader on the field who believes in leading by example. When first appointed captain by former India U-16 coach Nicolai Adam, he was apprehensive about it and wondered whether it would affect his game. As time passed by, he learned to embrace the responsibility.

“I don’t know where I got this [leadership] quality from but now I know I’m made for it,” he said.

“When I was selected captain, I had this feeling that this is not meant for me. Later I realised that not everyone gets this responsibility and that I shouldn’t let this slip away. When you encourage someone, you get that motivation and know you have to keep your word. So when I tell others, they understand now that if Amarjit is following something, so should they.”

Playing alongside India captain Sunil Chhetri, there has been no better example of leadership and Amarjit has been following his idol closely. He knows in the distant future, he might wear the captain’s armband but Amarjit hasn’t dwelled too much on it.

“I observe Chhetri closely – how he handles the team, the way he talks,” he said. “How players follow his diet and training. What he is doing to still improve his level. There’s this belief among everyone now that if Chhetri bhai can do it, why can’t we?”

He added, “I am not someone who keeps long-term goals but I want to be a better version of myself tomorrow. That’s my priority.”