A few years ago, Justin Stephen was a leading sprinter in Thiruvananthapuram’s G.V. Raja Sports School. He had even run the 100m in Kerala’s high-profile State School Games.
“One day, our football coach Thomas Lopez, told me I should try out football. I think I was round 13 then,” said the 21-year-old.
Justin has come a long way since. On Thursday, he was presented the Kerala’s Footballer of the Year award, a gold medal, for being adjudged as the best in the men’s section by the Kerala Football Association.
“It’s a pleasant surprise,” said the Mahindra United defender who is now with the Mumbai-based club for the third successive season.
“When I started playing football, my only thought was to get a job through the game. Now, offers are coming in from the Railways and Navy, but I don’t want to go. I want to be a professional footballer.”
Justin played his first State sub-junior championship when he was 15 and a little later, he found his way into the Indian camp. Three years later, he got his break into professional football when he was picked to play for Viva Kerala FC, which will be South India’s lone representative in the forthcoming I-League.
He was quick to impress in his debut season and Mahindra United, which had one of the biggest budgets in Indian football, signed him with a lucrative salary.
“Justin can play in any position, stopper, midfielder, anywhere,” said A.M. Sreedharan, the Viva Kerala coach. “He is also very sound in the air with his headers and with both feet. And there’s no fear factor.
“He was with us for a year but we didn’t have the budget to retain him. He has a good future, he will play for India soon.”
Football in Mumbai may not draw big crowds but it offers some of the best facilities. “Our training ground is said to be one of the best in the country. I also have four others from Kerala in our Mahindra United team in N.P. Pradeep, Ajayan, Sushanth Mathew and Mohammed Rafi, so it’s almost like being at home,” said Justin who hails from Uzhavur in Kottayam.
They do discuss Kerala football frequently and also the State’s disappointing run in recent Santosh Trophy championships. “Finishing is the main problem in Kerala, we don’t have good forwards. Also, the formations were not very effective,” said the youngster who played for his home State in the recent senior National in Tamil Nadu.
Justin’s next big goal is to earn the India colours. “I’m working hard towards that,” said the youngster who literally worships England captain John Terry.