I.M. Vijayan: The Enigma of Indian Football
In a cricket-mad nation like India, it is a rare sighting that a talented footballer comes up through the grassroots of the country and transforms into one of the best exponents of his art in the Asian subcontinent.
I.M. Vijayan, a relatively unknown personality in the elite football communities like Europe and America, can be regarded as arguably the best Indian to have graced the football pitch in modern times.
Although the state of soccer is still far from desirable, along with the mercurial Baichung Bhutia, Vijayan transformed the structure of Indian football to make the game a more profitable and popular sport in the country with his phenomenal skills on the ball that earned him thousands of fans all over the globe.
Football.com takes a look at the illustrious career of the ‘Black Buck’ and how a pauperized 17-year-old teenager, selling soda-bottles to support his family, became one of the poster-boys of the ‘beautiful game’.
In other words, what follows is a real-life account of an inspirational ‘rags to riches’ story.
I.M. Vijay was born in 1969 in the Thrissur City of Kerala.
Coming from a lower-class family, Vijayan was forced to sell soda-bottles to earn a living for himself and his family. Although there were nominal opportunities available to develop into a professional footballer, Vijayan’s skills, love and determination for the game caught him the attention of then-DGP of Kerala, M.K. Joseph.
Impressed by the youngster’s talent and the vast potential embodied in Vijayan, Joseph got the then-17-year-old admitted at the Kerala Police Football Club for professional soccer training.
Vijayan career breakthrough came at the 1987 Nationals, where he was the backbone of his state’s successful run to the finals and subsequently earned numerous plaudits for his galvanizing performances.
His flair and trickery, lethal attributes in front of the goal and aggressive style of play tormented the oppositions’ defence and Vijayan soon became a household name in South India.
In 1991, the now-43-year-old budding manager won the Golden Boot at the Santosh Trophy and the same year Vijayan switched his allegiance to domestic giants Mohun Bagan.
However, the player returned to Kerala Police the following year, only to join back Mohun Bagan in 1993 and finally in 1994, Vijayan moved to JCT, where he was paired up with Bhutia and the transfer thus triggered the dawn of the most daunting strike-partnership Indian football has ever witnessed.
The two became the fulcrum of JCT’ play, spearheading the team’s attacks with sheer understated excellence, unlocking stubborn defences and devastating the opponents with their lightning-fast pace and ‘telepathic’ communication.
At times, their link-up play was truly a delight to watch, with Vijayan playing in the deeper role and producing magical plays that were calmly and beautifully executed by Bhutia ahead.
The duo also led JCT to a historic NFL title 1997 and Vijayan soon earned international recognition for his displays at the club, with various teams from the Middle-East, Malaysia and Thailand teams showing interest in the Indian starlet.
Vijayan, however, decided to stay put in India and instead shockingly departed JCT in 1999 in favour of a move to FC Kochin.
The transfer didn’t materialize as hoped and after an injury-plagued season at East Bengal, Vijayan rejoined JCT in 2002.
The attacker rediscovered his rich streak of scoring form during his second stint at JCT, netting in 10 goals in 34 appearances, although a knee-injury sustained during the stay at East Bengal had ‘mellowed down’ Vijayan.
In 2004, Churchill Brothers snapped up the ageing star and the year after, the player moved on to East Bengal, his final destination as an active footballer.
Representing six different clubs in a career spanning almost two decades, Vijayan retired as one of the most decorated sportspersons in Indian history.
He was thrice voted the Indian Player of the Year (1993, 1997 and 1999), becoming the first player in to win the accolade on multiple occasions and in 2003, the Government of India honoured Vijayan with the prestigious Arjuna Award.
Many fans even billed Vijayan as the ‘Indian Diego Maradona’ and although he was streets behind the Argentine legend in terms of talent and success achieved during as a footballer, the 79-times capped national team star did have the same passion and desire for the game, that could be felt every time he stepped on to the pitch.
India National Team
Vijayan made his international debut in 1989 for the 1992 Olympics qualifier and soon became an instrumental part of the national team set-up along with Bhutia.
The two replicated their phenomenal domestic strike partnership at the big stage, scoring various important goals at key competitions for India.
The 1992 South Asian Football Federation Cup corroborated the devastating best of Vijayan with the then-23-year-old scoring two hattricks at the tournament, one against arch-rival Pakistan and the other against ‘minnows’ Bhutan.
His first of the three goals against Bhutan came just after 12 seconds, recording as one of the fastest goals scored at international competitions.
Vijayan bid adieu to the ‘Men in Blues’ at the 2003 Afro-Asian Games, finishing as the top scorer with four goals and ending his magnificent career with a breathtaking record of 40 goals in 79 games for his nation.