"Bahrain's direct style hurt India in Asian Cup," says FC Pune City's Ashique Kuruniyan
"I tried to flick it towards him but didn't make proper contact with it. If I had flicked it properly, that ball wouldn't have reached (Sunil) Chhetri bhai," says Ashique Kuruniyan on the build-up to India's second goal against Thailand in their opening game of the AFC Asian Cup 2019.
It was a big tournament for the youngster from Kerala. Like 21 of the 23-man-squad, it was his first Asian Cup campaign, as part of the Indian National Team. The 21-year-old made a solid impression as well, even though he was not playing in his regular position out on the left wing.
So, did he feel the pressure? "Of course there was pressure. I had not played as a striker since my early days at the academy, and I was replacing Jeje (Lalpekhlua) in the team, so there was a pressure to perform because he has done so well for the national team," he said.
The Kerala man had a superb tournament and he gives a lot of credit to Stephen Constantine and Sunil Chhetri, in particular. Kuruniyan said it was hugely helpful for him to know that he always had the support of the coaching staff.
He also said that he was told a day prior to the game against Thailand that he would be starting as the striker, after having trained in the position throughout the pre-Asian Cup training stint that India had in the UAE.
How easy was his life made by the fact that he had Chhetri behind him? "Very easy," he smirks. "He's so experienced, he's played in different countries, with the best players, so he knows instinctively where to be and when to be there. His direction was very important for me while performing in the Asian Cup," the winger said.
But while he was satisfied with his own performance levels, Kuruniyan said that the whole team regretted not being able to make the Round of 16, despite having their fate in their own hands until the final day against Bahrain.
The FC Pune City man also said that India's loss against the hosts UAE in the Asian Cup taught him a lesson about Football, and how it swings on moments. "Obviously, we had so many chances but we didn't take any of them. In the first half, they had one chance, and they scored, that is their quality. That changed the game," he said.
Kuruniyan also said India were taken aback a little by the way Bahrain played, as opposed to Thailand and UAE. "With Thailand and UAE, they built the play up from the back, so we could press and it was easier to defend. Bahrain were quick, strong and played direct football, which put us on the back foot a little," the winger stressed.
For Kuruniyan, though, the Asian Cup was like the attainment of a dream. For a young boy in the Malappuram district of Kerala, there is little else to life other than Football. Kuruniyan said he believed growing up in Malappuram fueled his dream of wanting to play Football.
"In Malappuram, there are so many matches that you get to play. It is not just training, so there is competition at every level of Football in Malappuram, that helped me grow as a player," he said.
Due to financial problems in his family, Kuruniyan had to drop out of school, in the 8th grade, but even in the years working in a sugarcane farm, he didn't give up on his football dream. His education received an unexpected boost when he was selected for a football academy, under a project of the Kerala Government.
So, for that boy from Malappuram, how alien was it to have to go to Spain when he was selected for a stint at the Villarreal academy?
"It was difficult, I don't know Spanish, and many of the other players didn't speak English. But we had a Spanish coach at the Pune academy, and they were really helpful to me," he said. Kuruniyan also said that he'd befriended the Nigerian players at Villarreal's academy, just in an attempt to blend in, and find a few companions.
With new coach Phil Brown now the fourth different manager in the last two seasons for Pune City, does Kuruniyan believe it's a hindrance to have so many changes in leadership? No. In fact, quite the opposite. He says the frequent changes have given him the opportunity to learn different styles of football from different managers.
The young winger also said that his aim with Pune City for the rest of the season is to be able to help his side win his remaining six games. Whether that leads to qualification or not, he says, is a different issue.
For Ashique Kuruniyan, the world is at his feet, and he is taking nothing for granted. He wants to keep improving, keep playing games for India, and keep the Malappuram flag flying high.Published 29 Jan 2019, 19:50 IST