From sugarcane shop to football turf

Ashique Kuruniyan

I have a lot of dreams but it’s just that they are never too big,” says Ashique Kuruniyan. Big, is a relative term.

Born into a Malappuram family where money was never in surplus, Ashique took his first steps when his PT teacher called him to play football. Ashique, who was a sprinter at the time, was told to just ‘run fast on the wing and cross’. 

As the story goes, a young Ashique dropped out of eighth standard to work in a sugarcane shop. He would do his hours at work and take part in local 5s and 7s football tournaments. Yes, he wanted to make that money. No question. But he also wanted to make something of himself.

“I enjoyed it,” laughs the new Bengaluru FC recruit when asked about that time. “You get money in your hands in the evening and I could take care of my needs. There were some financial issues at home but the main reason (I stopped school) was I was hoping to get selected for the Sports hostel. I was in 8th standard and you can only join MSC Sports hosted in 8th standard. So I thought of not writing the exam because I believed I would get through, and I did.”

“My two brothers helped me a lot. People at home and my friends around my village. We had financial difficulties in the house but even then they would try to send me for practice sessions. So that time, for me to get boots and things, I went to work,” he says.

It was also at this time Ashique learned what it takes to make it as a footballer. Of course, he was polished as he went along but at these 5s and 7s tournaments, you had to grow up fast. The local events are hard-nosed, tough and strongly contested; much like the people who play them. It’s all about the money and bragging rights.

“I started playing 7s because you would get some money for every match,” he says. “It’s very rough. I was very scared because you’d get elbowed and people from Nigeria and other places would come and play. Referees don’t have red cards (in 7s). One time you’ve been given a yellow card, you don’t get it again because he has no red. I knew I had to be strong. How to play tough, that’s what I learned (there).”

“He’s not scared of anyone,” confirms Sunil Chhetri, Ashique’s captain for both club and country. “He just goes and does his business. Few things he has to learn, he knows it. And if he does what we think he can do, then we will see a proper superstar.”

As he advanced through the ranks, from Kerala to Pune to Bengaluru now - with a training stint at Villarreal C team in Spain - he has grown because of the mindset. He has already played in the Asian Cup, the pinnacle an Indian footballer can hope for at the moment. For the 22-year-old whose ‘dreams are never too big’, that is quite a trajectory.

Big, as mentioned earlier, is relative. It’s clear he always expected a lot from himself. 

Now, a lot more is expected of him. As he achieved his goal step by step, he just realigns his focus on to the next thing. From working in a sugarcane shop and kicking about at the local leagues to an Indian international, Ashique has made a career by beating the odds. “I’ve reached so far, so why be nervous now?,” he asks. “Your career as a football player might be 10 years long. I want to enjoy it.”

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