On the right foot

Just 21, Anirudh Thapa has already cemented a place in the senior India side. Next? He aims to be the best Indian midfielder in the next two-three years.

Anirudh Thapa was the star footballer at St Joseph’s Academy in Dehradun, his hometown.   -  Indian Super League

Anirudh Thapa is just 21, but his nascent career has seen highs that few footballers in India achieve in their entire careers. The midfielder has gone from training at the St Stephen’s Academy in Chandigarh to captaining the national under-19 team, winning the Indian Super League title with Chennaiyin FC and cementing a place in the senior India side.

Having picked up the game at the age of five, Anirudh learned the nuances of the sport from his father Pramod, who played in the Santosh Trophy for Gujarat, and elder brother Sanidhya. “My father was a footballer and my brother used to play for the school team, so my father pushed me into football as well. It was just fun for me at that age,” says Anirudh.

He developed a strong affinity for the sport and became the star footballer at St Joseph’s Academy in Dehradun, his hometown. “I was the captain of the school football team when I was in the seventh standard and Anirudh was in kindergarten. And believe it or not, we were in the same team! The jerseys would always be loose for him and he was the youngest player on the pitch,” recalls Sanidhya, who's now pursuing a master’s degree in business administration in Australia.

In fact, the Thapa brothers’ passion for the sport extended to their love for the same team: Manchester United. “I used to watch the (English) Premier League growing up and supported Manchester United. Seeing me, he became a United fan, too,” says Sanidhya, laughing.

In Class V, it came time for Anirudh to scale up his game. “I got completely into football and began to train with a coach named Ratan Thapa. I then had two options: either to join the Chandigarh Football Academy or St Stephen’s Academy, and my parents suggested the latter so that I could study and play football,” he says.

Thapa (R) scored his maiden international goal in the AFC Asian Cup against Thailand. PHOTO: AP   -  AP

 

Thus began a new chapter in his life as he moved to St Stephen’s at age 10. “It was a crucial phase for me because I had to do everything by myself and be independent,” says Anirudh.

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St Stephen’s is well-known for its grassroots football system that has produced the likes of current Indian national team campaigners Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sandesh Jhingan. It was there that Anirudh met Surinder Singh, the head of the sports and physical education department and a well-known grassroots-level coach who has worked as a scout for the All India Football Federation.

“The moment I saw Anirudh playing I knew I wanted him in my team. His vision is what made him stand out; he thinks with his eyes. During the trial, I noticed how he received the ball and looked up to find a pass to a teammate. It’s rare to find such talent in boys as young as him. It’s rare to find boys who would look up and play the ball into the gaps in the opposition defence,” says Surinder. “He was initially quiet and shy, but when he was on the field, he was like a magician with his feet. I used to put him with the senior boys because though he was physically not so strong, he was mentally very strong.”

Harold Carver, the founder and principal of St Stephen’s Academy, fondly remembers Anirudh as a very dedicated boy. “Anirudh was one of those no-trouble kind of kids. He was a fantastic chap who would concentrate on the task at hand – he would study when he had to and would then give everything on the football field,” he says.

The year 2012 was a turning point in Anirudh’s career. The AIFF was scouting for its junior teams and he decided to give it a shot. “The AIFF academy was in Kolkata and the trials were held in Dehradun. I had to give the school an excuse to attend the trials. I told my coach about the trials, but I told the hostel authorities that I had a toothache and had to go home. I went for the trials and was then called to Gurgaon for another trials two days later. I had to lie once again and I said I had to get a surgery done and went to Gurgaon for the final trials,” he says with a sheepish grin.

He impressed the coaches and made the cut along with his friend Deependra Negi — who now plays for ISL side Kerala Blasters — and was chosen for the India under-15 football team. Anirudh was then chosen to represent India at the 2013 South Asian Football Federation U-16 Championship in Nepal.

But this meant missing out on a lot of school. “I had my pre-boards the next year and we also had the SAFF Cup coming up. It was a crucial time and I had to choose between the two. It was a big opportunity for me because if I didn’t play, then the coach could have taken me off the team. I spoke to Carver Sir and he said don’t give pre-board exams and come directly for the board exams. Carver Sir gave me the confidence to go and play,” Anirudh says.

“I aim to be the best Indian midfielder in the next two-three years,” says Anirudh Thapa.   -  AP

 

With his board examinations just a month before the SAFF Cup in March 2013, Anirudh was left struggling to work out a plan. But, to his luck, the SAFF tourney was postponed to July.

“I went to school two weeks before the board exams and the teachers gave me important notes and told me exactly what to study. My class teacher Kalpana Sood and Vandana ma’am helped me. I scored 70 per cent, which was a very big thing for me since I had not given the pre-boards,” he recalls, before quickly adding with a sheepish smile: “I actually scored 71 per cent.”

Anirudh then took the decision to focus on football full time and progressed up the ranks of the junior sides, going on to represent India at the U-17 and U-19 levels and captaining the Palian Arrows in the junior I-League.

A string of strong performances saw his name do the rounds and he was soon signed by then-ISL champion Chennaiyin FC in 2016. Thapa, along with his AIFF Academy teammates Prosenjit Chakraborty and Jerry Lalrinzuala, travelled to France to train with French Ligue 1 club FC Metz that year.

“It is a big motivation for us to be training on the same field as Robert Pires. It is a huge honour for all of us to be associated with a club which had produced the likes of (Robert) Pires, Louis Saha, (Franck) Ribery, (Miralem) Pjanic, (Emmanuel) Adabeyor amongst others,” Thapa had said before the start of his three-month long trial.

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Thapa made one appearance for Chennaiyin in his debut season and was subsequently loaned out to I-League team Minerva Punjab FC the next season, where he was reunited with his high school coach Surinder. Having played 14 matches in the I-League and gained a lot of game time, Anirudh made a massive impact at Chennaiyin the following season. He emerged as one of coach John Gregory’s favourites and was a constant presence in the midfield, playing 16 games and scoring two goals in the side’s title-winning run. “The last year was very good for me. I won the ISL Emerging Player of the Year award, then won the Intercontinental Cup with the national team and captained the Indian team at the SAFF Cup, where we finished runners-up,” he says.

The wily midfielder is a picture of calm ahead of the biggest assignment of his career, the AFC Asian Cup 2019. “It’s a huge thing for me. The Indian team qualified after eight years, and at the age of 20, I have got this opportunity. My main focus is to excel there,” he says.

Where does he see himself in the near future? “I aim to be the best Indian midfielder in the next two-three years,” Anirudh says with conviction.