The Plan Was In Motion. Ajith Kumar Would Play The Game He Loved, It Would Eventually Bag Him A Government Job, And That Would Be The ‘Happily Ever After’ Ending In The Kumar Household’s Story. Then, A Confession, A Championship And Contract Later, The Dream Changed…
For Ajith Kumar’s family, sport was the means to an end. No, it didn’t have anything to do with him appearing on primetime television and the neighbourhood gathered around one screen to egg their local hero on. Nor were there visions of him in an India blue, doing everyone who shared his surname, proud. It was simply a ticket to a possible lottery – a government job.
“My uncle was the first sportsman in the family. But importantly, he bagged a government job through the sports quota and that set a precedent at home. Suddenly, sport wasn’t just fun and games anymore. It worked well because I didn’t have to convince my family to let me play the game while looking for a regular job – something so many aspiring footballers have to choose between,” he recalls.
“Government jobs were the craze when I was growing up. For my parents, football was a way towards guaranteed employment and settling down in life.”
But Ajith had other plans. With one foot in the door, his next move would involve a little bit of deceit. His love for the game was too deep to simply use it as a way to get a job that would need him to sign in and out on a register. He wanted to play football professionally, even it meant tucking away his first contract from his unassuming parents.
“I had to hide it because I knew they wouldn’t be happy,” he says, adding, “Not that they would be against it but I wasn’t sure. I felt good when I got a contract and didn’t think twice about signing it. Paperwork done, I laid low until I finally had to tell them before leaving the house. It all worked out well at the end.”
If his parents weren’t thrilled at his decision to take up the sport full time, his first season in professional football quickly changed their minds.
Under the tutelage of Akbar Nawas, a group of inexperienced but talented Indians along with a touch of Spanish flair won the I-League title – pipping the likes of Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
While the win brought attention, the eye-catching style won plaudits. Central to it all was a backline that was comfortable on the ball to build play from the back. And Ajith played across the defence as the team looked for the foundation to build on.
“When I joined Chennai City FC, I was moved around the park. I played right-back, then centre-back before settling at left-back. It didn’t matter which position I was drafted in, I just wanted to help the team. At the end of it all, we had a trophy, so nothing else mattered.” The fame and piece of silverware was enough to convert his parents. “I won the title, made a small name for myself and they were finally okay with me pursuing my dream of playing football professionally.”
Ajith was not always a defender however. Like most kids, he grew up wanting to be part of the action at the other end of the pitch – creating chances and scoring goals. “My favourite players were Ricardo Kaka, Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo. Because I always played as an attacking midfielder.”
With time, his position changed and so did his idols.
“Since the time I started playing as a left back, I have spent a lot of time on YouTube looking at Paolo Maldini’s videos on the advice of CCFC video analyst Aravind Chandrasekaran. He was an extraordinary player. Defending is difficult art and he excelled at it. Apart from learning from coaches on the field, I also took notes from his videos: his positioning, body language and more.”
While the I-League title is the biggest trophy of his career, Ajith says he wasn’t alien to being a champion right from when he began.
He captained his college and university teams and won the inter-university championship. He played for three clubs, across divisions, in Chennai and won three titles. His form and success also saw him get picked for the Santosh Trophy squad – the only level that has seen him miss out on adding to his trophy cabinet.
As we speak about his early life in football leading up to his Santosh Trophy call ups, he pauses to recollect what he labels a “very happy memory”.
“The 2017 Santosh Trophy camp was held in Bangalore. At the government stadium with the turf ground.” The arena in discussion is the Bengaluru Football Stadium.
“We were training when I spotted Chhetri bhai in the gallery. As a Bengaluru FC fan, that was such a big surprise. I was so happy! And then a little while later I saw Paartalu doing some individual training at a distance. He wasn’t close but yet he was like a giant,” recalls Ajith, with his voice suggesting awe.
Things have moved fast since that day and while he cannot contain his joy at becoming a Bengaluru FC player, he admits he didn’t believe the first signs of interest the club showed to sign him.
“When I was first told about Bengaluru FC’s interest, I didn’t believe it. I brushed it aside because…” he pauses to gather his thoughts. “We are talking about Bengaluru FC and me. It was hard to believe.”
Ajith knows the task at hand as he prepares for his first season in the Indian Super League.
“It has all settled in now and I know that I have to repay the club’s faith in me. I come at a time when someone who has been playing my position (Nishu Kumar) for the past few years has left the club now. The bar is pretty high, I know,” he says, before adding “That’s a bar I want to match and then surpass. I know how difficult it is but that is what I have signed up for.”
“For me, this move is a blessing. To represent the club that I have followed closely on TV, to wear the shirt and rub shoulders with players I have been following for a while, I am very excited.”
How does a Chennai lad, who has mostly played for various academies and clubs in and around the city, take to a club that’s across the border?
“I have been a fan of the club right from the start. The way they played, the infrastructure, the fan base, the quality of Indian players – most of them are national team players – everything about the club was great.”
“The general idea, if you ask anyone, is that if you are good enough to play for BFC then you are good enough to play for your country. Most Indians who played for them have also put on the Indian shirt. My aim is also to represent the country. I know that I have to do well with BFC for that and I will give my all from day one.”