There are plenty of renowned footballers who’s journey began from the local tournaments in Kerala.
An acclaimed writer and the winner of multiple Indian literary awards, N.S. Madhavan once wrote, ‘Son, football is my religion, Sevens is its Antichrist’ in ‘Higuita,’ one of his most celebrated short stories till date. Although it conveyed the exact sentiments exhibited by the purists of the sport in India, reality turned out quite differently – especially in Kerala, the small southern state of the country often referred to as ‘the cradle of Indian football.’
Over the past many years, Sevens Football has turned out to be one of the most popular forms of the sport not only in Kerala but also in several other parts of the country. The success of Sevens has also transcended to regular 11-a-side football, by contributing several big names to top-flight clubs and even the Indian national team.
Khel Now takes a look at the five top Blue Tigers’ stars who had humble beginnings to their respective careers on Sevens pitches:
5. Ashique Kuruniyan
22-year-old Ashique Kuruniyan, who plays as a winger for India and the Indian Super League (ISL) side Bengaluru FC, is the latest in a long line of stars who owe some of their success to Sevens football.
“It is through Sevens matches that I started playing football. It is some of the managers here in Sevens football who helped me pursue my footballing career,” said Ashique two years ago, in an interview with Goal. Thanks to his performances in the Sevens tournaments, he was soon picked by ‘Vision India,’ a scheme started by the Kerala Football Association.
In October 2016, he had a trial with Spanish club Villarreal and later in 2017 signed a contract with erstwhile FC Pune City, where he remained until 2019. Later on in August 2019, Bengaluru FC signed him in a big deal.
He went on to make his national team debut against Chinese Taipei on June 1, 2018 and has so far played a total of 16 matches for the Blue Tigers. He also got onto the scoresheet once once, against Sri Lanka in the 2018 SAFF Championship in Bangladesh.
4. Anas Edathodika
Centre-back Anas Edathodika is a regular in the Indian team since 2017, having made 21 appearances for the side so far. The 33-year-old also owes his beginnings to Sevens football.
“For me and a lot of players in Malappuram, we came up through Sevens football. That is where we learn the toughness of the sport. We started off by facing tough, strong foreign strikers at the age of 15 or 16,” Goal quoted him as saying, in an interview last year.
“I am somebody who has not played much at the district or state level, but I got my experience from Sevens. It taught me what football is and it gave me opportunities,” he added further.
Anas got his earliest break from the Malappuram Sevens Tournament. In 2008, he was signed by Mumbai FC who became his first senior club in India. He then went on to play for Pune FC, Delhi Dynamos, Mohun Bagan, Jamshedpur FC, Kerala Blasters and ATK.
The defender got his first national team cap on March 22, 2017, against Cambodia in an international friendly. He has since played 20 more matches for the Blue Tigers. Having announced his retirement, the veteran centre-back was recalled by the then newly-appointed head coach Igor Stimac.
3. VP Sathyan
One of the most successful players to ever don the Indian jersey, VP Sathyan made 81 appearances for the national team from 1985 to 1995, playing mostly as a centre-back. He was also the captain of the team between 1991 and 1995.
Sathyan started his professional career in 1983 representing Kerala in the Santosh Trophy, but by then he was already a well-known star in Kerala thanks to his breathtaking performances in various Sevens football tournaments across the state.
His first assignment with the Indian national team was the 1985 SAF Games in Dhaka. Within a year, he established himself as a mainstay in the team and by 1986, he had represented the country in the Nehru Cup and also at the Asian Games in Seoul.
Moreover, Sathyan was awarded the honour of AIFF Player of the Year in 1995. A year later, after a short stint with Indian Bank, he hung up his boots. To date, he is the fourth most-capped player in the history of the Blue Tigers.
2. Jo Paul Ancheri
Another former Indian captain, Jo Paul Ancheri also began his footballing career on the Sevens’ pitches across Kerala. The 43-year-old has played as a forward, midfielder and a defender for the Indian team, thereby proving his versatility.
Ancheri began his professional career in 1992 by playing for State Bank of Travancore. He later went on to play for many established Indian clubs including Mohun Bagan, JCT, FC Kochin and East Bengal. But, it was the annual Sevens tournament at Thiroor, his village in Thrissur district, Kerala that earned him his earliest spotlight, which also played a role in his first India call-up in 1993.
In 1994 and 2001, he too won the AIFF Player of the Year award. Between 1996 and 2000, Ancheri was appointed as captain of the Blue Tigers. Overall, Jo Paul Ancheri made 33 international appearances, scoring seven goals.
1. IM Vijayan
IM Vijayan is easily one of the most recognized names in Indian football. The 51-year-old is also the fifth most-capped Indian player and also third in the list of all-time top-scorers for the Blue Tigers.
Vijayan has always been a strong advocate of Sevens football, despite the format not being well received by critics. “As a footballer, you could only get better by playing in Sevens. It helped me grow to be the international player I became,” he once said.
The Thrissur-born striker came from very humble beginnings. In 1987, he was given the great opportunity of joining the Kerala Police team after he was spotted at a Sevens football tournament. The rest is history, as he went on to play for the likes of Mohun Bagan, JCT, FC Kochin, East Bengal and Churchill Brothers.
Vijayan made his national team debut in 1989. One of the most memorable moments of his international career would be the goal he scored against Bhutan in the 1999 SAFF Cup, when he found the back of the net after just 12 seconds from kick-off. Overall, he scored 43 goals across 79 international appearances and was awarded the ‘AIFF Player of the Year’ thrice – in 1993, 1997 and 1999 respectively.
Honourable mentions: Mohammed Rafi, CK Vineeth