International player Raman Vijayan is in Karnataka to coach and mentor players. He has suggestions for good groundwork for the game in the State
The game was tied 2-2 in a recent Bangalore District Football Association Super Division league match at the Bangalore Football Stadium. There was a sudden buzz in the crowd and the press box. “Hold on, is that Raman Vijayan coming on as a substitute?” a spectator asked, as journalists hoped for a match-winning goal from the ex-international player for that heart-warming comeback story.
Raman, now 38, did not score and his KGF Academy team lost to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Sports Club (HASC) 2-4, but watching him on the pitch brought back memories from the Nineties when India boasted of an exciting team with the likes of I.M. Vijayan, Baichung Bhutia, Jo Paul Ancheri and Bruno Coutinho, with Raman as a key member as attacking midfielder and striker.
The former East Bengal star, born in Kandramanickam in Tamil Nadu, has moved to Kolar to take over as KGF Academy coach. He insists that he will come on to play only if the situation demands, sheepishly adding that he isn’t quite “fit enough right now”.
The all-time Indian top scorer in the elite National Football League (now called the I-league) is here to primarily impart his vast knowledge in a coach and mentor role. “This is a new challenge for me. We have a good team, and I aim to take the team to the top by creating a good atmosphere here.”
The conservation inevitably veers to old times, and Raman offers an explanation for why Indian football is now ranked 164 by FIFA, a slight improvement from 165, its lowest in history. “I don’t believe in rankings, but the talent is definitely not as prolific. During our time, there was fierce competition for every position in every club. Now, we are struggling to find a good striker after Sunil Chhetri’s (India’s leading striker after Baichung’s retirement) entry.”
He puts the onus on clubs to harness and develop the talents of Indian strikers.
“With clubs signing foreign strikers, the local players lose touch and confidence as they are on the bench for long periods. So obviously, when they are called for national duty, their lack of form and match practice produces average results.”
This is Raman’s first assignment in Karnataka, after successful stints at Indian Bank, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting as a player. He talks of good times in Karnataka when its football legends Babu Mani (who played alongside Raman for India and East Bengal) and former India captain Carlton Chapman gave youngsters in the State much needed inspiration.
“The current lot of fans and even the players do not know the history of Karnataka football and the star players it has produced. The people need a current player to serve as an icon, which will help parents encourage their children to play the sport with confidence.”
Setting up dedicated fan clubs for teams, an increased number of tournaments, and greater media coverage of local leagues are some of his suggestions to raise the quality of football in the State.
Vijayan also has a word of caution for fans in India who follow popular international leagues. “Indians watch the EPL and the La Liga and criticize our players for not matching those standards. Fans should understand that comparisons are unfair as the set-up in England and other western countries facilitate quality footballers. Our people do not know the kind of obstacles Indian players face to make it to a decent level.”
The new coach is here with his wife and infant daughter, so has the man moved to Karnataka for good? “I like it here and hope to stay, but I cannot say with certainty. Footballers need security, and this requires us to move constantly. If a good opportunity arises somewhere, I will go. That is our life.”
Despite his relocation, Raman still has ties to the game back home. He founded the Noble Football Academy, housed in Chidambaram, and the project remains a priority. The first batch of 40 trainees has graduated, with 15 young footballers now representing Tamil Nadu in various age groups. The aim of producing professional footballers from Tamil Nadu is well on track.
Raman’s magic on the field may have faded, but much can be expected from his energetic efforts off it.