Small frame, big grit

It Had Been His Decision. Despite Having Friends, Teammates And Coaches Who Tried To Talk Him Out Of Signing For Bengaluru, Suresh Wangjam Did. Because As We’ve Seen Over The Last Month Or So, El Torito Doesn’t Shy Away From A Challenge…

The setting is the tiny district of Wangoi Wahengbam Leikai, in Imphal, where nine-year-old Suresh Wangjam helps his father Wangjam Chandra Singh load cement and iron onto trucks at his hardware store. Later in the evenings, the two would team up together again, but this time for a game of badminton. It isn’t a picture that fits the beginning of young Suresh’s footballing career when you see him manning the Blues’ midfield, but that’s the one.

“My father loves badminton. Even today when I go home, we play badminton together. When I was younger, I played in a few tournaments too, but I was never really interested in the sport. I loved football instead. I used to see the team from Wangoi Football Association train in my locality, but my parents didn’t allow me to join them. I am the only boy child, and I have three sisters, so my parents wanted me to study and have a ‘proper job’ instead. I don’t blame them, and I never will. But I was adamant that I wanted to play football,” smiles Suresh.

The academy fee of eight hundred rupees was the roadblock that stopped Suresh from joining WFA. Unable to convince his parents but stubborn in his methods, he attempted a different route.

“When I was 11 years old, I had started playing in local tournaments with my colony friends. I got ten rupees for every goal and fifty rupees for winning matches. I scored a lot of goals, and people had started to notice. But my parents wouldn’t relent. Then one day I went to the Club Secretary Longjam Achoaba Singh, and asked him to convince my parents to let me join WFA. He said he would, and kept his word.”

Having joined Wangoi, Suresh played in several attacking positions at different tournaments. Soon after, he made the move to Birchandra Memorial Sports Club and represented Manipur’s U14 team. One step led to another as National Team coach Nicolai Adam took note of the youngster’s qualities when he turned out for his state.

“Joining the academy at BMSC was a big step for me because a lot of people started to notice. After the final of the Manchester United Premier Cup in 2014, the Indian National Team came forward and asked me to join their team. He had seen me play for Manipur too. It was a big moment for my family and that’s when my parents warmed up to the fact that football could provide us with a livelihood.”

Ahead of the final, which was incidentally played against Bengaluru FC’s first ever Academy side, Suresh had the chance to meet Sunil Chhetri, Robin Singh and Bhaichung Bhutia. The innocence in his eyes seldom leaves, but it’s even more visible when he recalls that day.

“It was an amazing moment for me. Because I had never really met any big players. These were the people I grew up watching on TV and suddenly I was standing next to them. We won that final against BFC, and soon I was playing for the youth sides in the Indian National Team. But if you told me then that I would play with Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu one day, I would not have believed you. I still don’t, sometimes.”

Fourteen thousand children from across the country were grouped together in 2016 as India began trials for its FIFA U17 World Cup squad. Suresh was one of them, and eight months later, he was still one of them – only the second time his name was on a list of just 26 players.

“In the World Cup camp, every day was a challenge. There were new players coming for trials almost every morning and we had to keep fighting for our position. I’m very happy to have been a part of that team because apart from getting the opportunity to play in a World Cup, it threw a challenge at me like none I had faced before.”

Suresh was drafted into a developmental Indian Arrows team following the U17 World Cup, where he squared up against some of India’s best midfielders in the I-League. Two years and over 40 appearances later, the big clubs came calling for some of India’s brightest young stars.

“At the end of our second season, many of my teammates got offers from BFC and other clubs. Every teammate I spoke to and every senior player I spoke to asked me not to join Bengaluru. When I was in the Indian Arrows team there was no pressure because we were sure starters. Some of the clubs that came to sign guaranteed that I would start 90% of the games. Then I spoke to my father, who asked me to join BFC and fight for a place instead. My father, in fact, was the only one who told me to come here. And I made up my mind.”

Entering a dressing room that housed the Indian Super League champions, Suresh had a proper job on his hands. On the pitch, he was to fight for a place against some of the best players in the country, and off it, he had decided to stay away from them.

“When I joined, I could not bring myself to speak to Gurpreet bhai or Chhetri bhai or some of the other players. I was so scared. Whenever they walked by, I tried to avoid them. One day Gurpreet bhai called me and said that I was young and that I had to greet the players. He thought I was being disrespectful, but the truth is was just scared. I got back home and told my father what had happened and he said to me that what Gurpreet bhai said was right. My father said ‘When you meet them, say hello and say good morning. Now I greet them and talk to them, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not scared because I still am sometimes.”

Waiting patiently on the sidelines while representing the club’s reserve team, Suresh made his first-team bow twelve games into the League season. Asked to be the heckler in midfield against Odisha at the Fortress, the 19-year-old had his eyes set on Xisco.

“I asked the team analyst Alwin (Lawrence) to help me with clips of Xisco because I wanted to mark him out of that game. I noticed his patterns of play, how he moved off the ball and I did my best. It was a good lesson, and I took that into the next game. In my second game against Hyderabad, coach told me to mark Marcelinho. Then I was asked to mark Crivellaro. I’m happy that the coach trusts me to mark these big names, and I’m still learning every day.”

A pro-contract brings with it many luxuries, chief among them being a fat paycheque. An assist for Deshorn Brown’s strike and an ‘Emerging Player’ award means Wangjam’s February paycheque will have bonuses in tow. But money means little to Suresh, who says every rupee goes straight to an account in Wangoi, in Imphal.

“Until today, any money that I’ve made from playing football has gone straight to my father. He named his shop ‘Suresh Variety Store’ after me when I was born, and long before I started playing football. When I go home, I sign all the cheques for him and he uses it for his business. When we talk, he tells me how he spends the money, but to me it doesn’t matter. I’m just overwhelmed that football is allowing me to help run our business. My parents worked really hard for me when I was young and nothing makes me happier than being able to help them back.”