‘I’ve only ever had small dreams’

From Missing The Bus In 2015 To Penning A Four-Year-Deal With Bengaluru FC, Ashique Kuruniyan’s Is A Story Of Patience, Grit And Joys That Aren’t Lavish…

At eighteen, you’re expected to add maturity to your small list of traits whilst being allowed to brood and vent more than you should, every once a while. That’s pretty close to how Ashique Kuruniyan went about things after trudging off the turf at the Bangalore Football Stadium in 2015.

“I had travelled with the Indian U19 squad to play a couple of friendlies against Bengaluru FC. We were a bunch of youngsters keen to impress a club that seemed the best place to be. I remember how the club signed Daniel Lalhlimpuia, Nishu Kumar and Malsawmzuala in the days that followed. I was very happy for them, but deep down inside, there was a feeling of regret at not getting that call. To be fair, I had started on the bench and played only the last 15 minutes, so it would have needed a performance out of the ordinary to turn heads. Yet, I was young and hence was entitled to be upset. Every rookie footballer wanted to wear the BFC shirt, and I was no different, recalls Kuruniyan, wearing the 2019-20 home kit of the Blues with his name emblazoned in white on it. It may have taken four years, but the shirt is now his.

Ashique with his India U19 squad in 2015. | via Instagram

While Ashique’s signature on the dotted line commits his next four years with the Blues, its importance only just pips the first time he had to scribble his autograph on a piece of paper. A young boy had made his way to the pacy winger back in 2014 and his gentle request for an autograph was something Ashique had never met before. But he says it took him down a lane he once walked.

“I was that boy once. Wandering the streets, just hoping I’d run into some of the players I grew up watching. When I was little, my father took me to the stadiums to watch IM Vijayan and Asif Saheer. I dreamt of meeting them or getting their autographs but I never could. When that little boy came over with the paper in Pune, I realized that I was making someone else’s dreams come true. But more than that, it dawned on me that I was living a dream of my own.”

For a journey that’s seen him travel from the sugarcane fields of Malappuram to football stadiums across the world, Ashique has come a long way in a short time. Before his stints with Pune FC, FC Pune City and a loan deal that saw him travel to Spain to train with La Liga giants CF Villarreal’s Reserve team, the winger tells us there were smaller longings that he worked hard on.

“Growing up, all I wanted was to be allowed to wear the Malappuram District Football Team jersey. It was a bright yellow jersey that had the word ‘Malappuram’ printed on the back. But it meant the world to me. When I look back now, it seems like a small dream, and it’s one I realized quite early as well. But that’s what got me here today.”

Chatting with us while in transit at the Kempegowda International Airport on his way to the Indian National Team camp in Goa, Ashique gets comfortable as he digs deep in his bag of memories.

“I was in the eighth standard when I went for the District Team trials for the first time and I very vividly remember there was a boy who wore a pair of fancy football shoes. I wished I had them, but I kept that aside for later and worked hard on the pitch. Then when they put the list on the board, I was selected but that boy wasn’t. It taught me that hard-work triumphs everything, and that good things happen in time,” Ashique recalls.

Ashique with his parents in his hometown, Malappuram. | via Instagram

For 12-year-old Ashique, the focus had shifted from a bright yellow jersey to flashy new boots and the hard-work continued. “My parents and siblings always supported me, and they took turns to take me to trials when I was young. When I went for the Kerala State Team trials in 2010, my brother told me that he would get me those expensive shoes if I made the list. I know we didn’t have the money or the means to buy it, but he kept his promise. I don’t know how, but when my name was printed in the papers, he brought me those shoes. They were bright orange and priceless in my eyes,” says Ashique, the smile spilling over from his face.

Dogged determination carried Ashique from the District Team to the State Team and soon he crossed borders to make his way to Pune, where with the help of Anas Edathodika and his local football coach, he trialled for the Pune FC Academy and joined forces with a face and a name that’s familiar to his new family in Bengaluru.

“I joined Pune when I was very young, and it was there that I met coach Naushad Moosa. Perhaps one of the reasons I have made it as a footballer is because of his guidance. I couldn’t understand it and held it against him when he played me as a striker in the U19 I-League once, but I got selected to the India U19 team because of that. Maybe he knew that the national team needed a versatile forward, or maybe he thought the scouts would notice me better if I played up front. It was a big break for me and I have him to thank for it.”

Then, while making his mark in the National Team’s youth setup and waves within the Pune FC Academy, Ashique wanted a move away to secure more minutes with a senior squad. “I wanted to leave Pune FC at the end of that season, but coach Moosa said that I had a lot to improve on. I couldn’t understand it then, because I wasn’t breaking into the first team. But, looking back now I realize that was the right decision. I’m glad that I’ll get to share the dressing room with him once again because he is among the coaches who have moulded me the most as a footballer, and as a person.”

With Udanta and Chhetri for company in attack, Ashique completes a trio that the Indian National Team enjoyed success with at the AFC Asian Cup in January.

“It’s no secret that the left wing at Bengaluru FC belongs to Chhetri bhai. But I know I’ll learn more from playing second-fiddle to him than as someone who owns that position in another club. Complacency kicks in when you know that you’re the first choice, but over here I can’t afford that because I’m fighting for places in a team with so many quality players. It was my dream to get to play alongside him once in my career, now it’s a challenge I’m ready for.”

With check-in fast approaching and the breakfast buffet being cleared, Ashique quickly signs off with a smile and a sentence that’s mature beyond his years.

“When I was young, if someone had told me that I’d make it as a footballer, I would try my best to believe them because I know that would motivate me. I’ve only ever had small dreams – a District Team jersey here and a pair of fancy football shoes there – that’s all it ever was. That Malappuram District jersey I always wanted became the National Team kit and the same company that made the shoes that I couldn’t afford now sponsors me. I’m just going to keep on dreaming small and working hard.”