I Knew I Could Play

Updated: Jun 30 2002, 05:30am hrs
With one eye on the sweaty football match being played in Keralas Thrissur stadium, a young boy sold peanuts to the crowds hoarsely urging their favourites to kick the golden goal. A life spent in a shanty with his mother and brother on two bare meals a day did not prevent him from emulating the players on the field long after they had gone home. Providence came to the rescue in the form of football coach P Jose, who noticed the boy dribbling with great alacrity in the empty stadium, and before he knew it, I M Vijayan had been chosen to play with the team. Thus was a star born.

Mr Vijayan is in Yokohama, Japan, these days to watch the finals on an all-expenses paid sojourn as the brand ambassador for Phillips. Isnt it nice he asks, visibly excited, in his home in Thrissur, clad in a lungi and kurta.

Which team does he think will lift the World Cup All along, I had pinned my hopes on Argentina. I am shocked by their exit, he says.

From selling peanuts in a stadium to watching the World Cup finals in Japan, Mr Vijayan has played a long, tough, but rewarding, match, hasnt he Eh, dont forget I also sold bottles of soda at the stadium, he says with a smile.

For a player whose name is synonymous with Indian football, Mr Vijayan remains in touch with his roots. Those were the days... I was lucky that Jose saar, who was conducting a coaching session for 30 students spotted me and took me in. At age 12, I joined the camp and was with them for three years. After that I played in a lot of Sevens matches (local football matches) for a sum of Rs 20 for a match. It ensured me a regular income, he says without embarrassment.

It was his finesse on the football field that drew the attention of the then deputy inspector general of police, and Mr Vijayan was asked to enlist in the Kerala police. I was glad to have a steady job, he says. But when I went to enlist, I was found to be six months too young and so, had to wait to be recruited. However, I played for the police prior to my recruitment. In 1991-92, I went to Kolkata and played for Mohun Bagan for a year, came back and played for the Police and later went back to Mohun Bagan again. For two years, I also played for JCT. In 1997, I played for FC Cochin and the next year, for Mohun Bagan, and was with FC for the next two years. Since this year, I am playing for JCT.

Doesnt this constant shift of teams affect him Not at all. Its all about money. My dad died when I was a little boy and my mother worked hard to make ends meet and I pitched in by selling peanuts and bottles of soda after school hours. We lived without basic amenities like electricity. Money is very important for me. Hence, the constant shift, he explains.

What would he term as the high points of his career Mr Vijayan smiles. Being selected to play at the age of 12 is the highest ever. Then being chosen to play at the district level with seniors, where I was the youngest. Going out of town for the matches was a high as I had not been out of my home town ever. Playing for these teams and playing for the country are all highs.

From the playing fields to acting in two Malayalam films, did he enjoy the glare of the celluloid spotlight He laughs loudly. I was invited as a chief guest for a function where I met Mr Jayaraj (Malayalam film director), who asked me if I would act in his film. Believe me, I thought he was joking. The next thing I know is Mr Jayaraj announcing at the function that I would be acting in his forthcoming film. I went home and asked my mother and wife about it, for I wanted to know if they would be comfortable with this new role in my life. They agreed and I did the film, Shantam. People talk about it as the film went on win a national award, but my role had nothing to do with its winning the award.

After Shantam, Mr Vijayan did another Malayalam film, Aakashathil Paravakal. It was a commercial film, he dismisses it. Is he doing any other film Are you joking he asks incredulously. He gestures to his face and says, Would anyone with a face like this ever think of acting But he did act. Oh, they were mere flukes. Well, if I do get good roles, I will think about it.

These days, the footballer is involved in his latest project, the I M Vijayan Sports Foundation. Its been on for two years, but I have not yet found any sponsors. I intend to give something back to the sport for all that it has given mea livelihood, name and fame. Looking back on his initial poverty stricken days, did he ever at any point doubt himself Never. I was always confident about my talent. I knew I could play. And that has kept me going. I have practised with a football when no one knew I existed and honed my game. Luck has been a fillip. Is he a believer Lets put it this way. I pray to God.