Sathyan was a NATURAL football talent. Hailing from Chokili village in Kannur district, his foray into the game seemed a natural transition, writes S. R. SURYANARAYAN.

Only memories remain of the man, who once was India's top class football defender. V. P. Sathyan was only 42 when he was tragically knocked down by an electric train in suburban Pallavaram in Chennai. Only two days earlier, he had mingled with a set of school students around his residence in Adambakkam, giving tips on how to take penalty kicks — his last coaching stint, to say. Little did those young aspirants realise that their `dear uncle' would leave them forever. Equally stunned was the sporting fraternity. The crowd of sportspersons, footballers and fans at the Chromepet government hospital where his body was brought, was testimony to the man's stature. Poignancy rent the air as the players of Indian Bank, whom Sathyan coached, surrounded their Guru's body to pay their final obeisance. Nobody had a word to utter.

Sathyan was a natural football talent. Hailing from Chokili village in Kannur district, Sathyan's foray into the game seemed a natural transition, as it was with most youths in this football crazy region of Kerala. Even as a 17-year-old, as he practised alone in the Kanur police ground, many had seen in him the commitment and discipline that were to stand him in good stead. Joining the Lucky Stars first, Sathyan made it to the State team in 1983. Then followed the shift to Kerala Police, which was one of the glamour outfits at that time.

Helping Kerala Police win the Federation Cup in 1990 and 91, Sathyan's stature grew as he led Kerala to Santosh Trophy triumph in 1992. "He had perhaps the safest pair of legs," said veteran players about his calibre. No wonder, when he played in Kolkata — for a short period though — for Mohun Bagan, Sathyan's fame soared.

Powerfully built, something that made him a delight with any coach, it was only natural for Sathyan to find acceptance at the national level. In 1986, he made his debut for India in the Jawaharlal Nehru Gold Cup held in Thiruvananthapuram. He held his own there, as he did in the 1993 edition in Chennai when he was able to stand up to the tough players of Cameroon and Finland. In 1991, Sathyan was an automatic choice for India captaincy and he led the nation in 10 matches. In all, Sathyan played around 80 international matches and that included Asian Games, SAF games, Nehru Cup, pre-World Cup and Asia Cup matches.

Talking of his prowess in taking long shots, C. R. Visswanathan, AIFF Vice-President, who had accompanied the Indian team to the 1986 Merdeka as manager, said Sathyan's 40-yard match-winning goal against South Korea was still fresh in his mind. "I am yet to see a better executed goal than that," he said. In this hour of grief, his friends, contemporaries and others remember him as "a gentleman, modest in nature and dedicated".

"He was awe-inspiring as a coach but off the football field, he was a down-to-earth person, very friendly to us," said International Sabir Pasha, barely able to hide his sorrow. Sathyan joined the Indian Bank in 1996 and served as a player first and thereafter its coach.

Becoming a leading coach was his dream and when AIFF posted him as assistant to Stephen Constantine for the North Korea trip in 2002, Sathyan took a big stride. Additionally came the responsibility as a national selector. Even though national level awards may have been slow to come for Sathyan — he was the footballer of the year in 1995 — there was recognition for his contribution to Indian football.

Kerala pays homage to its fond son

As she looked at V. P. Sathyan's face for one last time, P. T. Usha couldn't control herself. She cried. As did the sporting fraternity of Kerala on July 19, when the former Indian football captain's body was brought from Chennai to his ancestral home at Mekkunnu, near Thalassery.

"When I met for Sathyan for the last time, during Sportstar's relaunch function in Chennai last January, we had talked for a long time and I had invited him to my athletics school at Payyoli," she recalled. "And I have known Sathyan from the time he was a young boy; we studied at the same school, Muncipal High School at Kannur." Usha was among the thousands of Keralites who paid homage to Sathyan on his final journey back home. Huge crowds gathered at Kozhikode, Malappuram and Thalassery where the body was kept for about an hour each. The vehicle carrying the body had stopped at places like Palakkad and Koyilandy, where too his fans came in large numbers to pay their respects to one of the finest Indian defenders of our time.

Perhaps the largest gathering was at Kozhikode, where the body was laid out at the Kozhikode District Football Association office, which was barely 100 m away from the Corporation Stadium. A ground where, till a few years ago, Sathyan used to tackle the finest of forwards, defending the Kerala Police goal. I. M. Vijayan remains his best-known teammate.

"At Kozhikode, I didn't look at Sathyan's body; I couldn't bear it," said Vijayan. "He was like an elder brother to me. We played for the Indian, Kerala, Kerala Police and Mohun Bagan teams. I think I must have played with him in the Indian team more than anybody else. And he played a key role in introducing me to the professional club football of Kolkata, where I used to stay in his apartment. Once he told me that he would buy me a bike if I scored three goals against East Bengal; I could score only two, but he bought me a scooter. It is still there in Kolkata, with a friend of mine."

P. K. Ajith Kumar