Ashique Kuruniyan - fast and furious

Bengaluru FC skipper Sunil Chhetri feels India has a potential superstar in its hands.

Ashique Kuruniyan signed for reigning ISL champion Bengaluru FC in a four-year deal.   -  K Murali Kumar

Ashique Kuruniyan has always wanted to don the colours of Bengaluru FC. “I came here with the India U-19 team [in 2014-15] for a few friendlies against BFC ,” he recollects. “I was not in the starting XI and didn’t get much time. Three players from our team later signed for BFC. I had hoped they would select me but it didn't happen.”

Four years since, with his stock in India at its highest, the exciting 22-year-old winger has had his wish fulfilled, putting pen to paper on a four-year-deal. “Some of India's best players are here. We know how good the coach is and we are the defending champions. It’s a dream come true,” he says.

But growing up, none of this even figured in his thoughts. Hailing from a humble family in Malappuram, Kerala, he dropped out of school early and on occasions even worked in a sugarcane shop to help his family.

“My brothers helped me a lot. In Kerala, you have to study till 12th. Everything else comes later. But if you end up studying till 12th and then start playing, it won’t work. My family supported me fully. Even [with] minor financial troubles, they helped out.”

Though a natural athlete, Kuruniyan became a footballer only by chance. “I used to be a sprinter. I was first in my school and district. But my school once needed a left-winger. So my PE teacher told me, ‘just like how you run 100m, run here and cross the ball.’ That is how it started.”

“My only dream then was to play for the district team. It might not seem big now, but it was important for me. Now when you dream, it might be about playing abroad, playing in the ISL, etc. But back then it was just about the district team. Then it became the State team, then Pune FC, then National U-19 team and so on.”

In particular, Kuruniyan picks those years in Kerala’s famed seven-a-side tournaments central to his development. “I learnt to play tough. There are no red cards there. Only yellow. The referee doesn't even have a red card. It is very rough and you get hit a lot. Initially there was a lot of fear, of getting hit by the elbow etc. So I had to become stronger.”

The pressures in the ISL, though, will be of a different kind. A potential attacking trident at BFC featuring him, Sunil Chhetri and Udanta Singh, has already raised expectations. It is something fans have already had a glimpse of in the Indian National team, where Kuruniyan has been capped close to a dozen times.

“I can just say all the best to all the full-backs who are going to play against us,” Chhetri says. “Ashique is naive... in the sense that he doesn't understand what pressure is. Tell him ‘do this, this, this,' and he will do that. As raw as he is, he is just pure talent.”

“He is fast and powerful and is scared of no one. He just plays with the motive of going forward. If he does what we think he can do and learns quickly, you will see a proper superstar for the country.”

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