The life of anonymity that accompanies most Indian footballers is perfectly encapsulated in an incident that took place a little more than two decades ago. Indian captain, V.P. Sathyan was sat at Bengaluru airport with his wife, being mildly teased given the lack of recognition from anyone seated in their vicinity. They’re surprised but happy when a young girl walks up to him and asks for a pen, introducing herself as a sports fan. Said pen acquired, she darts across to the VIP lounge to get an autograph from Ravi Shastri.
The story is typical of a player who found himself flying under the radar throughout his career. He never received the limelight reserved for fellow Kerala internationals, I.M. Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri. Vijayan himself has spoken about how that might have to do with his role as a defender and he may well not be off the mark. Defenders traditionally do not get the kind of attention forwards and attacking midfielders get. The creative skills of those players are romanticised while a certain stodginess is associated with defenders.
That said, Sathyan was one of the very best the country has seen. The difference he made to the lineup was always evident when he missed a game, as seen when two yellow cards ruled him out of a World Cup qualifier against South Korea in 1993. India lost 7-0.
After debuting for Kerala in 1983, his performances earned him a maiden international call up to the side that played the SAF Games in 1985. After guiding an obscure but talented Kerala Police side to Federation Cup glory in 1990 and 1991, he was made captain of the national side. He was the rock of the Santosh Trophy winning Kerala sides in 1991-92 and 1992-93, bringing much cheer to the long suffering state which had waited 18 years for the trophy following the breakthrough win in 1973-74.
That era represented the golden generation of footballers from Kerala and many, including Sathyan, were poached by the big Kolkata sides. He spent two seasons with Mohammedan Sporting and Mohun Bagan before returning home, having never really settled in Kolkata. He retired from international football in 1997 and ended his career at Indian Bank in Chennai.
He was a tortured soul in those last few years before retirement. He had played his entire career with a steel rod implanted in his left leg, having suffered a serious injury as a child. The strain told in the latter years as he began contemplating a life without football. The lack of recognition was a sore point and he had already seen how ex-footballers in the country were treated. He had once seen the legendary Jarnail Singh running from pillar to post trying to get a pass for a game in Punjab, and knew what was coming.
In 2006, at the age of 41, he jumped onto the tracks before a speeding train bringing his life to a tragic end. In a cruel twist of fate, Vatta Parambath Sathyan received more recognition in death than he ever got as a player. A movie on his life released earlier this year, drawing in good audiences in Kerala. It also serves as a reminder of the career counselling that is needed for retiring players to help them adjust better to a life after football. For many like Sathyan, it is the only life they know.