English Premier League and Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand recently dropped a huge hint that he was open to the idea of coming out of retirement and booting up for the Indian Super League (ISL).
ISL teams have consistently attracted top talent and marquee players to their midst and that’s really helped the tournament soar.
If foreign players are willing to come out of retirement to play in the ISL and return with their heads held high, then we can at least hope some Indian players would do the same.
Will they do it? It’s unlikely, due to a myriad of reasons (age being a prime reason). But for a moment, let’s just think about these five players who, if they came out of retirement, would have perfectly fitted into the ISL.
#1 Bhaichung Bhutia
Bhutia will always remain the ‘Big Bhai’ of 21st-century Indian football. For a very long time from the 1990s, and well into the 2000s, he was Indian football’s lone poster boy.
His effective combination play with Kerala-based IM Vijayan is the stuff legends are made of.
The ‘Sikkimese Sniper,’ as he was fondly called, has always been a stickler for fitness and finesse. Making his debut for East Bengal, he turned Indian international in 1995, at the age of 19.
The first Indian player to have plied his trade in the English Second Division, with FC Bury, he would be a natural fit into any current ISL team.
A natural leader, his mere presence has always been enough to make players believe in themselves. This was evident during his last international match, against South Korea, during the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Doha, Qatar.
Bhutia, who was injured, was brought on as a substitute very late in the game. The Indian team, which had been playing like a headless chicken until then, suddenly grew in confidence. The minute he came on, they tiki-taka’ed their way to 23 passes and almost scored. The hundreds of South Korean fans at the venue applauded the player.
What an addition Bhutia would be to any ISL team.
#2 IM Vijayan
There are many who fervently believe IM Vijayan was born into the wrong footballing generation. Several sigh audibly and nod their heads sadly when talking about what Vijayan could have been had he been an active player now.
This is not without reason. Simply put, he is one of the deadliest strikers the country has ever produced. Born into poverty, he initially had to sell soda bottles to earn a living. He understood very early in life that the beautiful game was his only shot at redemption. It gave him a burning passion for the game, a fiery will to succeed.
His rise as a footballing superstar was quite quick. But unfortunately, with not much money in the game then, he let his focus wander and appeared in several ‘Sevens Tournaments,’ at great cost to his health.
Had he been playing now, under proper guidance and a stricter training regimen, there is no saying how much higher he could have gone.
After scoring 40 goals from 79 matches, including the third-fastest goal in the world, he called time on his career in 2003. His age, 51, rules him out of a return to the ISL. But what if he could and had? Some things are never meant to be. Sigh!
#3 Jo Paul Ancheri
Jo Paul, as he was fondly known as, did not possess exceptional height to win aerial battles for the ball. But his powerful physique made up for it beautifully.
Beginning his professional career in 1992, with the State Bank of Travancore, Jo Paul’s rise was very exciting. His powerful playing style made him a favourite at many leading Indian clubs, including Mohun Bagan, FC Cochin and East Bengal.
A very versatile player, he was a natural in different positions – defence, defensive midfield, midfield and attack.
The two-time IAAF Player of the Year suffered from some serious injuries during his peak. Had he been playing now, India’s answer to Brazil’s Roberto Carlos would have torn through ISL opposition teams’ ranks.
#4 Renedy Singh
Potsangbam Renedy Singh, from Manipur, made a name for himself by being the best of the best at what he did – be the Indian national team’s midfield engine.
His deadly runs down the field, like a bullet discharged from a gun, are still fondly remembered. His precision crosses – from one side of the field to the other – are also legendary.
He has played in many of India’s most elite clubs including Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and JCT. It was not accidental that Sunil Chetri once called him ‘India’s best midfielder, yet the most underrated and unnoticed footballer of recent times.’
A free-kick master and a dead ball specialist, he played a vital role in India’s campaign at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Doha, Qatar.
Had he been an active player today, his selection to an ISL team would have been a no-brainer. Nevertheless, he is an assistant coach with ISL side FC Pune City. Renedy’s saga, on or off the field, continues.
#5 CV Pappachan
Pappachan is another old-time Malayali favourite.
The ferocious striker, who made a habit of making daring individual runs into opposition boxes, would have been a big addition to any ISL team.
Born in the Trichur district of Kerala, Pappachan was a natural leader of men. He was recruited into the Kerala Police team in 1982 and played there for seven years. He captained the Kerala Police team and also helped Kerala win the Santosh Trophy titles in 1992 and 1993.
Famed for his strong physique, his most memorable moment came when he scored India’s only goal against Hungary in the 1991 Nehru Cup.
Ever the perfectionist, he had a keen sense of the game’s flow and was gifted with an uncanny ability to predict his opponent’s next move. Both these attributes would have been greatly appreciated by any ISL team worth their salt.
FUN FACT: After retiring from the sport, he took a totally different route and specialised in performing ‘Panchari Melam,’ which is music made on a percussion instrument. His penchant for creating art, both on the football field and off it, lives on.