From getting into football by chance to cashing in on opportunities, Ashique Kuruniyan has gone on to become the hottest property in Indian football.
The 2019 AFC Asian Cup was an eye-opener for the Indian football team in many ways. While their gritty performances surprised many, it also helped the side stand up and be noticed on the continental stage.
Among the many narratives that the Indian team wove together at the Asian Cup, one that stood out was that of Ashique Kuruniyan.
The young football player from Kerala was a constant threat for the opposition on the left-wing, often cutting inside to either have a crack at goal or to set up his team-mates. It was one of his rampaging forward forays in the opening match against Thailand which saw him being tripped inside the penalty box, handing India a penalty.
Skipper Sunil Chhetri went on to convert the spot-kick to open the scoring for India, which laid the foundation for a historic victory - the Blue Tigers’ first in the continental showpiece since 1964. However, that would turn out to be India's best result in the competition as they bowed out after back-to-back losses against UAE and Bahrain in their remaining group stage matches.
Irrespective of the results, it was a learning experience for young Team India. Rubbing shoulders against the best in Asia, the side realised the gulf in quality and the effort required to take them to their desired goal.
“I got to learn a lot. Playing against some of the biggest names in Asia, it was a great experience,” said Kuruniyan when asked about the AFC Asian Cup in a chat with the Olympic Channel.
Recounting the second match against UAE, a match in which India created a flurry of chances but failed to make them count, he continued, “I still think we should have won that game. It still hurts thinking about that match. I missed a chance, Udanta (Singh) hit the post. But that’s football. The margins are very fine.”
But Kuruniyan is not one to rue missed opportunities for too long.
“It’s a part of the game,” he said. This is probably the reason why the 22-year-old has often found ways to wriggle out of difficult situations.
For someone having grown up in Malappuram, a football-crazy district of Kerala, Kuruniyan developing an affection for the beautiful game from an early age would have hardly come across as a surprise. With the region being the hub of the much-famed seven-a-side competition - Football 7s - every nook and corner saw youngsters gather around for a kick about. But strangely for Kuruniyan, he wasn’t one among them.
“I started with athletics. I liked the 100m a lot. But then, one day, our school PE teacher was looking for a winger for our school team. And when he couldn’t find anyone, he came up to me and said, ‘Just like how you run 100m, run here and cross the ball’. That’s how it started.”
Little did Rafique ‘sir’, the PE teacher at the Panakkad MUAUP School, know back then that he had unearthed one of India’s most promising football stars.
A young Kuruniyan would later go on to join a football camp followed by the Malabar Special Police (MSP) Department Sports Hostel, where he learned the nitty-gritty of the game for two years. All this, while still in the eighth grade.
Joining the Sports Hostel also meant Kuruniyan had to drop out of school. While most parents would have vehemently opposed such a move, his folks were different. “They always backed my dreams,” he fondly recalled.
“I think it might have something to do with where we come from. No one ever told me not to play or do something else. Even when I decided to drop out of school to join the sports hostel, they backed me and I am forever grateful to them.”
A few months into his training at the sports hostel, Kuruniyan started making waves in Malappuram. Taking the field in the 7s circuit, the youngster caught a few eyeballs with his pace and vision. And one of the many he impressed was Babu, a 7s fanatic.
Babu knew Indian international Anas Edathodika, who, back then, was plying his trade at Pune FC - a top-level domestic club in India. Through him, Kuruniyan was called for trials with the Maharashtra-based side and was soon roped into their academy in 2014. “It was a surprise move. Babu ikka (elder brother) told me about it; and thankfully, things went well and they roped me into their academy,” said Kuruniyan.
While the move to Pune proved to be a turning point in the youngster’s career, the pacy winger credits his time in the 7s circuit that helped him learn the physical part of the game.
“7s is a bit different. The rules might be the same and the ultimate goal might be the same, but the pace is different. It’s more physical. If you aren’t any strong, you can be done in no time. That’s something that I learnt from the 7s circuit. It made me stronger; taught me how to play against physically superior opponents.”
With the Pune FC academy being acquired by Indian Super League (ISL) side FC Pune City in 2016, Kuruniyan's talents were soon noticed and the youngster earned himself a senior contract with the Stallions.
But before he could set the stage alight for Pune City, Ashique’s career was in for another unexpected turn. The club management decided to loan him out to Villareal ‘C’ - La Liga side Villareal's third team.
Signing a three-month deal with an option to extend, Kuruniyan was on the Spain-bound flight to realise what most Indian players would only dream of. But unfortunately, the move ended in misery as he suffered a hamstring injury after turning up for two games.
Though it was a bitter pill to swallow, Kuruniyan says the disappointment taught him how to take setbacks in his stride. “It’s football. And injuries are a part of the game. Yes, I was very sad initially, but then I had to come out of it and prepare for my return,” he mused.
However, it was not all doom and gloom. In the two months he spent in Spain, Kuruniyan grew a lot. “It was very different from what we were used to doing in India. The exposure taught me a lot. We would work on the ball a lot. Playing alongside top-quality players there, it helped a lot too. I think the technical side of my game improved a lot there.”
Back in India after his Spanish sojourn, Kuruniyan focussed on his recovery before hitting his stride in the ISL. And once he was in, his raw pace and flair made him an instant hit at Pune.
Playing under a few different coaches - Pune had three in one season - the Kerala boy was the stand-out player for his side in a rather underwhelming season. “It was a good season for me. I played under a few coaches and everyone had a different style, a different philosophy. There was a lot of learning and unlearning. But overall, I had a really good time.”
His domestic success saw Kuruniyan being called up to the national team soon after. While it took him some time to get used to the international stage, the 22-year-old was in his element when the Asian Cup came by.
Kuruniyan is once again on a comeback trail. After missing India’s FIFA World Cup qualifier against Qatar, the winger is hoping to play a role in the side’s game against Bangladesh on October 15. And if the national team skipper is to be believed, there’s some serious threat awaiting their opponents.
“I can just say all the best to all the full-backs who are going to play against us,” Sunil Chhetri had said in a recent press conference. “Ashique is naive - in the sense that he doesn't understand what pressure is. Tell him ‘do this, this, this,' and he will do that. As raw as he is, he is just pure talent.”