It was another rainy day in the Spanish province of Castellon, where Villarreal C team players were practicing attacking drills. Despite the heavy rainfall and freezing cold, the entire team was having a good time at the practice session. But the mood turned serious when Indian teenager Ashique Kuruniyan suffered a tear in his hamstring.
“It was -1 degree Celsius that night. It felt like I was covered in ice. I was shivering, but that’s normal in Spain. But somewhere, I also felt that the warm-up was not enough for me at least,” recalls Kuruniyan.
Just moments before the injury, the teenager had scored a couple of goals in training. But during a long-ball crossing session, Kuruniyan felt pain in his hamstring. The injury not only ended his training session, but brought a premature end to Kuruniyan’s dream stint in Spain, a move that he had earned just a few months ago.
“I went blank for a while when I realised it was over. All the hard yards that I’ve been putting every day had gone in vain. Later I figured, abh ho gaya toh ho gaya, kya kar sakte hain (whatever’s happened, is in the past. Nothing can be done about it now).”
Kuruniyan, hailing from a lower-middle class family, is the fifth child born to his parents. After dropping out of school in the eighth grade, the Malappuram lad worked in a sugarcane shop in order to help out his family financially.
After he finished his shift each day, he played football.
Kuruniyan, one of the rare left-footed wingers produced by India, soon started to make waves in local tournaments and in no time, he was picked up from a programme designed by the Kerala Football Association.
Several clubs came calling but it was Pune FC who got their man and soon, he was selected for the U-18 and U-19 India squads.
Even as he was making a name for himself in Pune’s U-19 side, erstwhile I-League club’s youth teams were acquired by the Indian Super League (ISL) franchise, FC Pune City.
It was during this time that an opportunity to go to Villarreal presented itself.
Despite the glamour which you would associate with a stint in Spain, things weren’t that easy for the Indian youngster. Certain factors like the language barrier and homesickness in a new city made him feel uneasy at first. “At first, it was difficult for me to settle but as soon as I started training with the boys, I felt comfortable.”
On the pitch too, Kuruniyan was instantly taken aback by Spain’s traditional style of direct football. He was often left in awe of his teammate’s passing abilities. “Football is very fast in Spain. There is absolutely no time to think when you are in possession. I played a match within one week there and, in the middle of the game, I was telling myself, ‘Kuch samajh hi nahi aaraha hain’ (I don’t understand what’s happening).”
The teenager played for Villareal C in the lower leagues, and for FC Roda — the feeder club for the Spanish giants, where he scored in his first game. He went on to captain the side in his second game.
The Spanish football setup is no doubt one of the most successful programmes in world football. Every year, the local academies churn out talented players who go on to play for various La Liga teams and, if talented, for the country too.
“In Spain, everything is so organised that you have an U-5 academy where the kids play competitive matches on weekends. It is mandatory for them to attend training sessions at least three times a week. Here, we hardly have any academies for kids. So, there’s a gap but I feel we are climbing the ladder slowly,” says the youngster.
Kuruniyan also gushes about seeing his childhood idol Alexandre Pato at Villarreal.
“Usko dekhega aur woh level tak pohchega young age main (I looked at him and thought to myself I want to get to that stage at a young age).”
Unfortunately, just as he was getting accustomed to life in Spain, the injury ended it. Kuruniyan says the support of his family and friends was critical for him to tide over the personal crisis.
“I know that they all were kind of devastated because this was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. My family and friends were sad but they didn’t show it to me. I know they all were hiding it from me,” the 20-year-old says.
Kuruniyan underwent a rehab session for nearly five months after which he returned to the academy in Pune in mid-August. “The (rehab) process was slow, but I had to go through all of that in pain. I was overweight after my rehab. I worked out in the gym as I stayed in the academy for a month. Slowly, I progressed and played four matches for the team,” says Kuruniyan.
Now, in his second stint, Kuruniyan has cemented his place in FC Pune City side under Serbian coach Ranko Popovic, who holds the youngster in high regards. “To be honest I never thought I’ll be able to find my feet again, especially when I was injured,” he says.
Kuruniyan has played a key role this season for Popovic’s Pune, making eight appearances so far and feels he is in the right club with the right manager and board. “He (Popovic) wants me to focus on one-touch football and my passing. I’m implementing whatever I have learned in my two-and-a-half-month stint on the pitch for Pune.
“Coach bolte hain dimaag se khelneka (coach tells me to use my brain while playing). He wants a good shape when we play. He also wants me to pay attention to my defensive responsibilities too,” adds Kuruniyan.
After the heartbreak in Spain, Kuruniyan is enjoying life again, this time in a familiar city. He’s also playing on Indian football’s grandest stage of all.
If another opportunity arises, he won’t hesitate to pack his bags and chase the dream.
Updated Date: Mar 10, 2018 17:19 PM