`The game has improved'

S.R. SURYANARAYAN

R. RAGU

THE hungry look is no longer written on his face. He is a satisfied man, who has an array of achievements and awards, including the coveted Arjuna Award. Slightly filled out, I. M. Vijayan, 36, is today experiencing the true joy of a football player. The dark phase of his childhood, when he had to sell odds and ends for a living, is long over. Vijayan, now, is a man of many parts — footballer, actor, coach, businessman and soon a politician.

The ace footballer takes life as it comes and so when filmmaker Jayaraj first found in him the makings of a character in his film, Vijayan's phase as an actor began. A few more offers in the tinsel world followed and one is in the pipeline. Sitting in his hotel room in Goa during the Federation Cup tournament, with his East Bengal colleague and statemate M. Suresh for company, Vijayan sounded contented as he touched on his achievements, his current and future plans. But deep within there is a tinge of sadness that one day he would have to leave the maidan forever. At Hyderabad, during the Afro-Asian Games in 2003, he had announced that he would no longer be available for any more international matches, having played for India uninterruptedly from 1989. Fading out on a high is the fond wish of any top sportsperson. The standing ovation he received from his teammates and the spectators was something he recalls with moist eyes. "People loved me for my football," he said with feeling, "and that is the biggest prize I will carry with me all through my life."

The call of the maidan can be too dear to a man who loved the sport. Vijayan had continued to be associated with the game. He was member of the Churchill Brothers team in Goa first and then entered into a two-year contract with East Bengal. However, in the meantime, there emerged new national coach Syed Nayeemuddin, a long time admirer of Vijayan's talent. "He asked me to reconsider retirement and wanted me back," said Vijayan. He revealed his intention to join the national probables camp and see if he had a chance. "How can I deny playing for the country?" Before that he hopes to play for his state Kerala "one more time" in the Santosh Trophy. In short, the Vijayan saga is set for phase two.

Excerpts of the interview.

Question: Are you the most experienced player in this year's Federation Cup tournament?

Answer: I do not know that but I have been playing from I987, first with Kerala Police then Mohun Bagan, F C Kochin and thereafter JCT, Churchill Brothers and now East Bengal. I have been part of the winning sides of the first three named clubs. Yes, it has been a long time.

What are the changes you have been seeing over this period?

The sport has grown, and spread to more places. It has become popular and the entry of TV has made players visible. The standards have improved, thanks to the mingling with foreign players. Overall the football scene looks healthier now.

Are you happy with what all you have achieved? What are your future goals?

Definitely. Football gave meaning to my life. I was able to earn and do well in a sport I was so passionate about. In turn I could get the good things in life — a house, a good family apart from the love and affection of people. Recognition came and with it new opportunities. Doors of the film industry opened and then came the football academy and now my business.

Tell us something more on your academy and business.

The academy in Thrissur came into being four years back. There are 30 boys in the 11 to 14 age group, all from Thrissur. My football colleagues Jo Paul Anchery and Dinesh assist me in the training. The initial money for this came from an exhibition match involving cine-stars (all my friends) and now, to tell you the truth, I am hard-pressed for funds. I am seeking help from Gulf NRIs, though I have not found the time to visit the Gulf to make an appeal in person. This is an area of worry. As for my business, I am a partner with two NRIs in an industrial venture for making sports goods. `Boxer' is the name of the product. At the moment, the office is in Kochi and the factory in Jalandhar. Another factory is coming up shortly in Chalakudy. This business is doing fairly well.

Have you thought of anything more?

(Smiles) I am slowly into politics. Recently joined Karunakaran's Congress Party and already I am being urged to stand for elections.

Can you recall your most memorable moment and the darkest hour in your career?

I think the goal I scored off a back-volley in the Scissors Cup final sometime in 1995 against a Malaysian team should be it. I was a JCT player and in the jam-packed Kozhikode Corporation Stadium that goal truly made my image in Kerala. That also erased the mental agony I passed through sometime in 1991 because of the huge public protest over my shifting from Kerala Police to Mohun Bagan. Fans did not accept that, booed me everywhere, wrote nasty graffiti and saw me as a traitor. Later the same people realised that what I had done was only what job-seekers do — go for greener pastures. I see only love and affection for me now from everyone.

How much has Vijayan changed?

Have I changed? I believe I am the same despite all that football has given me. I continue to visit the places I used to — my school, friends and grounds — and with the same interest. I still feel there is still nothing to substitute my favourite rice and fish curry. Yes I have earned a lot more friends and goodwill.

Given a day off from your routine work, what will you do?

Watching movies. I enjoy movies and it can be in any language.