“They say that on the road to success, you fall nine times out of ten, but you get up ten times out of ten.”
I’d like to take you on a journey with me down this road. An eventful journey that I hope will help you, wherever you are, to forever strive and work hard to make your dreams come true. I was born in Kerala but brought up in a place called Binnaguri, a remote place in the North Bengal Dooars area which was surrounded by tribal inhabitants. Football, as young Shaji learned, is one of the most popular sports in Kolkata, West Bengal. West Bengal is widely regarded as the home of Indian Football with the two most supported football teams in the country being based in the city – East Bengal and Mohan Bagan. The city is also home to the biggest stadium in India, the Salt Lake Stadium. The state of West Bengal produced footballing legends such as the likes of Chuni Goswami, P.K Banerjee, and Gostho Pal. The mere happenstance of being brought up in the state played a key role in developing a hard-core passion for football in me from a very young age.
“Coaching and training for any sport wasn’t even a dream, at that point.”
I did my schooling from Kendriya Vidyalaya, Binnaguri Cant. Back then, the majority of children in our neighborhood didn’t go to a proper school. While at school, I can remember volleyball and cricket being the most popular sports, while football was an occasional pursuit. Coaching and training for any sport wasn’t even a dream, at that point.
Discovering the Joys of Football
One fine day, I discovered a football ground 200 meters from my house. Thus began my journey with the sport when I was 8 or 9 years old, and I would eagerly wait for April to September every year, which was our season to play football. For near on a decade, I received no basic coaching, instead, I honed my skills along with my peers and tried to learn as much as I could through seniors who played in higher-level matches. At the age of 15, I got my first break to play in the senior team of a local tea garden club, and by the time I was 16, I was a regular member of the tea garden team and played in numerous tournaments and matches in the Jalpaiguri district.
A passion becomes a pursuit
My passion for football and the desire to become a good player brought me to Gwalior with the aim of studying Physical Education and Sports Studies. Despite objections from my parents and family, I joined the Laxmibai National Institute of Physical Education. After joining the institute I realized there was a gulf in ability between myself and my classmates and seniors. All had received formative training, and some were extremely talented (India juniors, Santosh Trophy, etc). I put three years of struggle and constant training into becoming a better player and was soon a regular in the University team.
An early setback
At a point when things looked brighter with each passing day, a serious ACL knee injury in my early 20s brought my playing career to a complete halt. At that time I couldn’t afford the high knee surgery cost and made numerous attempts to make a comeback but failed each time with the reoccurrence of the knee injury.
“I couldn’t afford the high knee surgery cost and made numerous attempts to make a comeback but failed each time”
I was distraught and disconsolate at this twist of fate. Football had been an integral part of my life since the age of 8 and I believed in myself and my deep connection with the sport. It was for that reason I made a firm decision to continue my involvement in the sport, whether as a coach or in managing it. When I look back it is unbelievably wonderful that the little boy who got such joy from playing every day, and who faced the trauma of an early retirement is still involved with the sport. I look forward to sharing with you Part II of my My Journey in Football.