The thick grey streaks on his faux-hawk hair style and slight paunch are telltale signs of ageing. But for Inivalappil Mani Vijayan, Kerala’s most celebrated footballer, who turned 50 on Thursday, age is just a number.
For him, there is no life away from the beautiful game. He continues to defy the age showing dazzling skills and athleticism on the field whether coming on as substitute for Kerala Police or playing in the veterans league.
A recent video, which was a big hit in social media, saw him outplaying players half his age in the Champions League 2019 organised by Qatar Indian Football Association. It was a throwback to the days when at his prime, Vijayan used to conjure up moments of magic scoring goals from improbable angles and situations.
His lanky frame and uncoordinated body movements were deceptive. So was his quick change of pace which foxed his markers and enabled him to give killer passes to his team-mates. He was the finest exponent of the free-kick and the overhead kick during his playing days. The scorer of country’s fastest international goal, I. M. Vijayan’s life is a metaphor for Indian football.
As a child born into a poor Dalit family, Vijayan sold soda in the Thrissur Municipal stadium to make both ends meet and to watch the football matches for free. He rose to stardom with his sheer talent. Not a very bright student, Vijayan found solace in football. It was a pleasant diversion for him from his daily tough grind.
As he grew up, Vijayan became a star in seven football circle, earning ₹40 to ₹50 rupees per match. His precocious talent soon became a talk of the town and words reached E. M. Sreedharan, the Kerala Police coach. Sreedharan wanted to have him in the Kerala Police team and he approached Director General of Police (DGP) M. K. Joseph. Vijayan was only 17 years old and ineligible to take part in the trials but DGP M. K. Joseph got special permission from then Kerala Chief Minister K. Karunakaran and rest, as they say, is history.
Nicknamed the ‘Black Buck’ for his exploits in Kolkata Maidan, Vijayan found fame playing for Calcutta clubs. He is a winner of the coveted Arjuna Award and captained India before he retired on a high after the Afro-Asian Games in 2003.
After his retirement, Vijayan dabbled in films, making his debut in national award winning film Shanthanam directed by Jayaraj. He also tried his hand at coaching, but had little success. Vijayan, now, is a circle inspector in Kerala Police and continues to inspire a generation of footballers.