Legendary Indian footballer IM Vijayan, considered by many as one of the greatest strikers the country has ever produced said that he rejected offers from football clubs in Malaysia and Thailand to stay at Mohun Bagan as he didn’t want to cheat the fans and fellow players.
“I wanted to stay in India. At that time, I was at Mohun Bagan and the fans loved me so much. I also had fellow players from Kerala in the team, so I felt if I left, I would cheat the fans and fellow professionals and that would be a big problem. So, I decided to stay,” Vijayan told Indian captain Sunil Chhetri in an Instagram chat.
“My English was also not good, so I wasn’t sure how would I cope,” he added.
The Kerala footballer though admits things could have been different had he chose to move abroad.
“I didn’t have many people around me from whom I could seek advice. At that time, I took all the decisions by myself. Maybe if I had people at that time who could give me the right advice, anything could have happened. But I have no regrets, I’m very happy,” he said.
‘Many better players than me in Kerala’
Chhetri felt the lack of media coverage during Vijayan’s playing days has meant that new-age fans of Indian football missed out on the chance to truly understand how great Vijayan was. The former Kerala footballer though has no regrets over the lack of evidence of his qualities.
“I don’t feel bad that I didn’t receive a lot of coverage in terms of video footage. There is no video footage of PK Banerjee and Chuni Goswami, but people still love them. I’m happy the new generation of footballers is getting recognition. There should be no jealousy,” Vijayan said.
“I feel there were many better footballers than me in Kerala, it’s just that they didn’t take the risk. So, I am very grateful for all the love that I have received and for the football that I have played,” he added.
Vijayan was born in poverty. During his childhood, he used to sell soda bottles and cigarettes in Thrissur stadium so that he could watch games and also make a living.
“We used to get ten rupees to watch a match. That time ten rupees were huge for me,” he said.
Even after joining Kerala Police football team at the age of 17 and playing there for four years, Vijayan struggled to build a house for himself. He had to make the tough call of moving to Kolkata to earn a better wage so that he could support his family.
“Football was professional only in Kolkata at that time. For me, it was tough to leave Kerala. My mom cried a lot when I left, but it was important for me too as I had to make my house,” he said.
Vijayan then had multiple stints with Mohun Bagan and Kerala Police before moving to JCT Mills where he played for three more years. He developed a great relationship with coach Sukhwinder Singh whom he trusted a lot.
“No club treated me the way JCT did. They took complete care of me. So, when Sukhi sir asked me to join again, I signed without reading the terms. I knew that if he was offering, it would be the right price. I had full faith in him,” Vijayan said.
The national team years
In the national camp, Vijayan was notorious for avoiding warm-ups. He never had a liking for it, but since he could produce the goods in games without it, no coach forced it on him. He recalled an incident with the national team when he and Joe Paul Ancheri went to watch a film on the match day. By the time they returned the match time was advanced by a few hours they only had fifteen minutes to get ready.
Eventually, the team won the match, and both Vijayan and Joe Paul Ancheri scored. However, Vijayan doesn’t advise other footballers to follow his example.
“I was God gifted. But everyone is different, so this may not work for all. I had players in my team who would need to run a lot to play well in matches. So, I’ll suggest the new generation to work hard and follow what works best for them,” he said.
During his time with the national team, Vijayan played with different coaches and recalled how the players enjoyed adapting to different methods of training.
“Syed Nayeemuddin wanted us to practice a lot. But in Kolkata, it used to get dark quite early. I remember him making every one of us hold a torch in our hands and making us play. We thought it would be quite strange, but we enjoyed it a lot,” he said.
“Rustom Akramov, India’s coach in 1995 wanted players to do boxing. When we didn’t take it seriously, he called actual boxers to train. We received a few blows on our faces, but it was fun,” he added.
Vijayan said he asks young footballers to follow Chhetri’s example if they want to have a long career for India.
“I like the way you play. I watch all your games. I admire how you have scored so many goals and take so much burden in the national team and clubs. I feel you can easily play for another three years,” Vijayan told Chhetri, before providing his own tips for having a prolonged football career.
“You play football with your feet, keep it there, don’t let it get to your head,” he said. “It was great to play with Bhaichung but it’s sad that I could never play with you. It would have been amazing had we three played together...we would have raised a storm.”