Nishu Kumar: How 19-year-old footballer from cricket-crazy Muzaffarnagar is on the cusp of playing for India
In a few days, Nishu Kumar will join the cream of India's football — players like Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh and Eugeneson Lyngdoh — as the national team's camp begins in Mumbai.
For nearly two years of his life, Nishu Kumar spent one-and-a-half hours of his day kicking a football against a wall. Daily. When it was sweltering hot, he kicked the ball repeatedly against the wall. When it was cold, he kicked the ball repeatedly against the wall. When it rained... you guessed it right.
It sounds odd. But to Nishu, the days he spent at the Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA) passing the ball against a wall was the best education in the sport he had ever received.
"Joining the CFA was the best decision I have made in my life," Nishu tells Firstpost. "Everything changed for me at Chandigarh under Harjinder Singh, who has played for the national team himself. He used to focus on the basics a lot. Things that are helping me now in life. For one or two years of my career, we honed our basics and did not play too many football matches at CFA.
"A lot of other coaches put a lot of emphasis on things like running. I saw later that in many places players would warm-up for a bit and then straight away get on the pitch and start playing. But Harjinder sir wanted us to focus on our ball control. We had a big wall next to our ground. We would practice against that for over an hour everyday. Harjinder sir wouldn't let us go on the ground before that," the 19-year-old adds.
That was 10 years ago. In a few days, Nishu will join the cream of India's football — players like Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh and Eugeneson Lyngdoh — as the national team's camp begins in Mumbai. The national team are slated to play Cambodia in an international friendly in Phnom Penh on 22 March as part of their preparation for the crucial Group A match against Myanmar on 28 March in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, UAE 2019.
Nishu's footballing journey started rather oddly. The city of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, where Nishu hails from, is the better known for single-minded devotion to cricket. But the young Nishu had one aching fascination in his life: he wanted to live in a hostel.
"A couple of my older friends had gotten picked by the Lucknow Sports College and they would keep telling me stories about it. That's when I got really keen on going and living in a hostel. That was the only thing on my mind as a kid. I even picked football for that same reason.
"When I played football for my school, it gave me the opportunity to travel to other districts to compete in tournaments. Cricket, on the other hand, would have gotten me just a few games in my locality. So I knew I had to play football. I really liked the feeling of living out of my house even for a week," Nishu says.
But there was one problem. Not many played the sport where he came from.
"I played with people who were only doing this to pass their time. None of them was serious about the sport. Some of them were married uncles," Nishu recalls.
But life changed for the better in 2009 when he took part in a trial for CFA and was picked by the academy. He was finally getting his chance to go live in a hostel, but his family and friends were not convinced.
"People would say that I would spend two-three years in a hostel and then come back home. There's nothing in football, don't waste your time. There has never been a good footballer from Muzaffarnagar. My mother was firmly against me playing football.
"Par main thoda ziddi type tha (But I was a stubborn kid). I said even if it lasts for two years, I want to do it. If I had listened to them, I would not be in the national camp," Nishu says.
It was in CFA that he started to make a name for himself. Soon, the AIFF regional academy in Mumbai gave him a call in 2012. But CFA refused to let him go. The following year, a bigger offer arrived, one that would prove harder to refuse. The AIFF Elite Academy wanted him.
It was there that he became a full-back.
"I was a centre-back till then. But the Elite Academy already had two players who were really tall for that position. Besides, they had already played for India. Since my height was short, the coach there put me at full-back," he says.
It was with the U-19 Indian team that he caught the eye of Bengaluru FC.
"We were participating in a tournament in 2014. So we had come to Bengaluru for a couple of friendly matches against Bengaluru FC. In those matches, we were up against players who were already part of India team like Sunil (Chhetri) bhai. So I was determined to make a good impression. I told myself that I will play aggressively. I wanted to show what I was made of. I went into both matches thinking whatever happens don't let anyone beat you. I frequently found myself going up against Robin (Singh) bhai and Alwyn George. I just got beaten once or twice. But not easily. Right then, the club picked me along with two other players from the U-19 team," Nishu reminisces.
Having put in decent performances over the last few months, the India call-up was a given. However, the UP lad reveals the news came to him as a surprise.
"I wasn't expecting this. I only found out when I started getting messages from Bengaluru FC players.
"Sunil bhai also called to congratulate me. He later took me out for dinner and explained that I would have to put in double the amount of effort I had until now. He told me that you don't get opportunities like these too many times, so now that you have got it, don't let it go.
"Woh bole junior level pe thoda bahut upar neeche bhi chalta hai. But senior level pe har din 100 percent dena padega (He said at the junior level you can get get away without putting in your best, but the senior national team demands that you perform at 100 percent everyday)."
That's what Nishu has done, ever since his CFA days. And that's how a boy from cricket-crazy Muzaffarnagar, who started playing the sport with married uncles, is now on the cusp of playing for India.
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