‘The rejection, fines and beating – football was worth it all’

At 11 Years Of Age, Ajay Chhetri Was Told Firmly That Football Wasn’t Meant For Him. Turns Out, It Was Just The ‘Encouragement’ He Needed…

In the town of Khurkhul, in Manipur, Ganesh Chhetri lifts the shutters to his new shop. ‘Ajay Sports Enterprises’, reads the signboard on top. It has been an eventful few weeks in the Chhetri household with former and current Indian national team players Seityasen, Jackichand and Gouramangi – all Singhs –  among those who have paid the sports goods store a visit. 

It’s the first time he’s being interviewed and he resorts to padding his responses with small laughs. He soon finds his voice though when it comes to telling us about the role his son Ajay has played in turning fortunes at the house. 

“What can I say? Ten years ago when Ajay told us he wanted to play sports professionally, I told him to pick football because it was the cheaper option. All I had to do was buy him a ball. Manipur has a sport-loving community, but it is equally difficult to make it big when you are from here. But look where we are now. Ajay’s only 21, and he’s made our family proud,” Ganesh admits. 

Growing up, the allure of cricket – with all its fancy gear – couldn’t escape Ajay’s imagination. But it was quickly termed ‘too expensive’ by his father. Taking over the phone from his old man, Ajay continues the story. 

“Everyone loves cricket, even in Manipur. When I told my father about wanting to pick the sport up, he said we couldn’t afford the academies or the equipment. He suggested I play football instead. But when I realised that there was no coaching system or tournaments in my locality, I was upset. My mother even asked me to forget about football. I went from wanting one sport, to compromising for another and then having nothing,” Ajay remembers.

On the brink of his teenage years and starved of the opportunity to play, Ajay picked up every little thing he could about the beautiful game from his television set. “I was told that cricket was a rich man’s game, so that meant football was everyone’s game. Even though I couldn’t play, I learned a lot from the television. When Manchester United played, I’d watch the pre-match warm ups, pay attention to what the players were doing, and try to do that by myself at home. I didn’t have any friends to play with, so that was all I could do. I worked on my first touch, I drew a line on the wall and tried to aim for it with my passing. It was all I could do.”

Looking back on his first ever tournament, Ajay remembers it was dejection that led him to want to become better and work harder. “The first time I was close to playing a game of football in my town was during Holi when they organized a Yaoshang tournament. My friends made a team and I was a part of it, but because I was the youngest, I never got a chance to play. I was really upset by that, and I decided that even if I wasn’t to make it anywhere professionally, I’d become better than those boys.”

Picking up on the little things he saw on TV, Ajay set out on a path to become the best version of himself. “I started working on my fitness, waking up early to go on long runs, I used stones for weights and did everything that I saw professional footballers do, but with my limited understanding. There was a small club in Manipur called BM Rao FC, they called me over and asked me to come and train with them. I thought this could be the break I need, but it wasn’t.”

With his academic schedule clashing with the training schedules of the club, Ajay was told to stick to his books. “Training with BM Rao FC was at 9 am, but so was school. I couldn’t join them, and it really upset me. But a few days later, I gave in. I knew I couldn’t join them for training because I wasn’t allowed to, but I skipped class and went to watch them anyway. I learned new things that I could do at home by myself. I even had to save up and pay fines because my attendance was that low.”

Yet to play for a club, Ajay was into his tenth grade when his father learned that trials were scheduled to take place in Manipur. “I was in a hostel, and my father came to take permission for me to leave and attend the trials. The hostel didn’t allow me, because they thought I would fail, so I told my dad to bring my mother along and try again. It was a long shot, but she came. This was the same woman who had told me to leave football, but here she was, asking for permission to let me trial. When I look back, it really was an emotional moment for me.”

Things didn’t quite go to plan and the Chhetris only consolation was that they had tried. But the 15-year-old had other plans. “I wasn’t bad at studies, it was just that I didn’t enjoy it as much as playing football. When they denied me the chance to go for those trials, I told my friends I would be back in a day, and jumped the wall. I didn’t make it back for over a week, and when I went back, I got beaten up for it. I told myself that every beating would be worth it one day.”

By his own admission, Ajay says he isn’t great at narrating the story without making his mother seem like the villain. “When I tell my story, a lot of people think my mother never supported me. That’s not true at all. My mother, like all mothers, was looking out for me. The reason she asked me to forget about football was because she saw how upset I was at not being able to play. When I made it past the trials, my mother hosted my entire family at home before she broke the news to me. She was over the moon.”

After two years of shuttling between clubs in Kolkata and Manipur, Ajay read about another trial, and this time he didn’t have to jump a wall. 

Coaches from the Bengaluru FC Academy were due to head to the Northeast in 2016, but Ajay couldn’t wait. “I saw the dates and knew I had to go to Bangalore. My parents were praying back at home. My father kept calling me and encouraging me to give it everything. It seems like a long time ago now, and to be honest it probably was, but when I look at how far I have to go, I know it isn’t much.”

Since joining the club in 2016, Ajay worked his way up the ranks from the U18s to the Bengaluru FC B team, before making his first team debut against Jamshedpur in 2019, winning the Indian Super League title a month later. Loaned out to Hyderabad FC to gain valuable first team experience last season, Ajay says he feels a sense of stability when it comes to his football dream. 

“My friends, I don’t even know where they are today, but if they had allowed me to play that Yaoshang tournament, I probably would have never reached where I have. I’m 21 now, and I play for the best club in the country. Coach Moosa and Carles really believe in youth and that is something that makes me feel like I am at the right place in my career.” 

Back in Khurkhul, his mother takes care of things at home while his father manages the shop. “My father has always been into business but his work was seasonal. Sometimes he’d be on the field with the crop, other times he’s working with fabric or something else. When I came home in the summer, I wanted to help him settle down and do something he loves. This shop is named after me because he wouldn’t have it any other way.” 

Drawing the interview to a close, Ajay says he owes it all to his parents for holding him back, only to push him at the right moments.“My parents have always been my biggest supporters. They said ‘no’ when they should have, and they were the ones who said ‘go’ when they knew it was the right time for me. Last year, when I told my father that I might get the opportunity to play in the Indian Super League, he promptly replaced our small television with a fairly bigger one and sent out invites to friends and family to come watch the games.”

For someone whose journey to turning professional wasn’t clutter-free, his progress is best viewed in high definition.