Among Indian footballers, if there is an instance of what could have been if a child had access to the opportunities available to young talent in mainstream footballing nations, one does not need to look beyond Inivalappil Mani Vijayan.
This is not to say that I.M. Vijayan did not achieve much. 250 goals over two decades playing for a string of teams which are a veritable who’s who of Indian football indicate that he had a stellar career. Add to that 40 goals in 79 games for the national team. However, numerous observers have opined that if it weren’t for childhood malnourishment, Vijayan could very well have been plying his trade in Europe. Such was his talent at football.
It is incredible that he had a career at all. The odds were stacked against him right from the start. He was born in 1969 in destitute circumstances. His father, a daily wage worker, passed away when Vijayan was 12 and his mother cleaned floors for a living. To help his family get by, the young boy would sell soda bottles outside the Thrissur Municipal Stadium.
His interest in football was piqued watching games at the stadium and he started playing with the other kids in the vicinity, using a ball made of rags. Thankfully, he had supportive people around him and at the age of 15, attended trials conducted by the district sports council. His talent shone through like a beacon and he was selected to attend a football camp where his skills were honed further by renowned coach, T.K. Chathunni.
In a case of being at the right place at the right time, he was noticed by then Director General of Police, M.K. Joseph, and picked for Kerala Police at the age of 17. The Quilon Nationals in 1987 announced his arrival on the big stage. Blessed with a turn of pace, great dribbling skills and a predatory instinct inside the box, he made a lot of people sit up and take notice.
By 1990, Vijayan, along with other talented players like V.P. Sathyan, C.V. Pappachan, Sharaf Ali and Kurikesh Mathew, had taken a nondescript local team to success in the Federation Cup, then the most prestigious club tournament in India. For good measure, they repeated the feat the very next year.
India’s top clubs came calling, and the rest is history. Vijayan caught the first wave of professionalism that hit Indian football in the 1990s, and became one of the best paid players around. The one whom they called the ‘Black Pearl’ illuminated football stadiums all over the country providing moments of magic that linger in the minds of all those who watched him play.
Today, he lives in a comfortable bungalow in a nice part of Thrissur, not far from the thatched mud hut he grew up in. Football has taken care of one of its own.