FIFA U-17 World Cup: How a tailor's son Komal Thatal is stitching together India's World Cup dreams
The story of Indian football's blue-eyed boy.
Both of Komal Thatal’s parents are tailors. While his father Arun Kumar Thatal is the master tailor, his mother Sumitra also equally lends her shoulder to help run the business.
It can very well be assumed that Komal is no stranger to the notion of fabrics being stitched together to create an enchanting whole. In football, the task, that of glueing together a move, befalls a midfielder. It then perhaps is less of a wonder, that in the present Indian squad for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, Komal is our creative hope. Not only proficient, he is also very comfortable in that zone.
But of course, he doesn’t restrict himself to initiating or patching moves, he can very well resolve them. And for that ability, he will forever be known as the 16-year old Indian who scored against the mighty Brazilians. That came about when he equalized in the 19th minute in the BRICS U-17 football tournament held at Bambolim, Goa. It happened to be the only goal that the Indian squad could manage during the entire tournament.
Black lentils and big toes: the making of Komal
Would you believe it was through a pint-sized black lentil that he first expressed his making of a footballer? Komal would push those grains and move it skillfully and fast across the cement courtyard with his big toe. By the time he was about three or four, his parents saw him being constantly enrapt with a balled up cloth or rag pieces within his house.
Eventually, he moved onto the real deal in his nearby smallish playground. He asked for a football – he got one; he asked for a boot – he got one too. One may not exactly call the Thatals poor but his parents do have a rich heart. They allowed their son to carry on with the game without much qualm.
Komal's father was himself a very good forward and had played till Class X but had settled into an early love marriage while he was in class XII. There were of course not many opportunities then as there are now.
In fact, the opportunities began to surface after 1999 when the Sikkim government began to take great measures to improve the sports infrastructure of the state and promote genuine talent from the grassroots irrespective of their background. And so it became possible to witness the likes of Komal who belongs to a scheduled caste and resides in the nondescript Tinburbung Village, which is about three-four kilometres (fifteen-twenty minutes by road) from Soreng Sub-Division in West Sikkim.
Those school days...
All said and done, but one has to be up to it to make good on the opportunities. Tinburbung Government School, where Komal studied, was only the first stop. All day long, there was only one thing he chased in his head and it was football. No other sports or games could rent any space in his mind. Except once for a nine-kilometre men’s marathon run in which he came second when he was barely twelve, it was football all the way.
Needless to say, after school, he could not wait to dash off to play with his mates. Many a time, Arun would see his son scurry off, boots in his hands, in a great hurry to play and would casually ask him to also pay some attention to his studies. Komal would promptly disappear inside the house, throw his boots outside the window on to the tea bushes below, walk out empty handed in front of his father only to coolly collect it on his way to join his mates.
His means of getting to his passion may elicit laughter but there was nothing slack in his seriousness for the game. Reciprocation came early when was only seven or eight years old.
In a junior school-level tournament held annually on August 15, the headmaster of Sandung Government School, who was previously with Tinburbung Government School, took Komal to represent his school. Though Sandung couldn’t win the tournament ultimately, Komal powered his way to nine goals in the semifinal. He ended up collecting the man-of-the-match award which included some one thousand five hundred rupees in cash, trophy and gifts including bags and fancy sports shoes. He still retains that sparingly worn sports shoe to this day.
Thereafter, he packed in two memorable wins in the finals at Lower Timberbung and Budhang. The junior level final match at Dodok Government School - two-three kilometres North of Tinburbung - showed signs of things to come. Here, Komal was pitted against Magnolia School, a private school. Being an open tournament, they had fielded a borrowed team. Tinburbung lost but Komal who played exceptionally well in the finals won the attention of Namchi Sports Hostel’s sports director. After the match, the director took Komal’s picture and number and asked him to apply for further training there when eligible.
Winter camp and sports hostel
Meanwhile, Komal’s name made delicate inroads into the local psyche. One of them was Namgyal Bhutia, a well-respected name in the junior levels. He asked Komal’s father to let his son come to his trials. Having succeeded, Komal went on to do a month-long residential winter coaching camp at Young Boys Football Academy in Geyzing.
Namchi Sports Hostel’s director must have spoken about the boy to Suren Chettri, the head coach. Suren inquired about that wonder boy from the sports teacher, Pinchu Bhutia, and asked him to bring him along to the trials. Suren, who also doubles up as an India U-17 team selector for Sikkim and West Bengal and U-18 I-League selector for the entire North East Zone, asked Komal to appear for a trial.
Suren, who had been with the hostel since its inception in 1999, always ensured that boys are selected only after a trial procedure no matter how talented they are. It has paid rich dividends to the institute.
The hostel which, under the purview of ‘Search for more Baichungs’ sponsored by Government Of Sikkim’s Sports and Youth Affairs department, hunts for talented footballers in the U-14 category has so far harvested players like Nirmal Chettri, Sanju Pradhan, Bikash Jairu, Uttam Rai, Nim Dorjee Tamang and such.
Suren found a very obedient, hard working and well-mannered player in Komal. Whatever the position, his coach would recommend he would dutifully fulfil it without questioning. It so happened that in a 2012 AIFF U-12 football held at Kalyani, Komal was even a custodian guarding the goal.
Experiments led Komal to mostly occupy the wings or play more centrally in attack. In the India U-17 squad which play a 4-3-3 formation, Komal is usually stationed his duties either on the right wing or in midfield, both of which are being considered as his best position.
Predominantly right-footed, he also has an equally good, if not better, left foot. As a team man, Komal is not selfish, distributes the ball well and pushes forward the whole team from his domain. Good with on-the-ball movement, the most remarkable thing about Komal is his ability to anticipate the game, to read the opponent very quickly.
One other thing that used to set apart Komal from the rest was his rigorous work ethic. Skillful he certainly was, but then so equally was a few of his mates but those extra efforts he used to put helped him walk the additional mile on the path to success.
Beyond the daily compulsory training from six to eight in the morning and after negotiating the equally necessary nine to four (Sunday off) school hours, he would find time for private practice. Like almost everyone, little Komal’s heavy eye-lids would occasionally droop over his school lessons, yet he managed never to repeat a year.
While at Namchi, he played the 2013 U-14 Subroto Mukherjee Cup as the youngest player in that U-14 squad. The only other big tournament that he turned out for them was the 2013 MUPC - Manchester United Premier Cup, a U-15 affair held at Jamshedpur, representing Bhaichung Bhutia’s United Sikkim Academy. Though they lost to Chandigarh in the quarterfinals, Komal had a very good outing. One should have seen his face after that match – it could hardly betray the tears which were just short of streaming out.
Losses are what Komal cannot digest. Not because he is weak but because he gives in his all – be it a training session or a match, and is always determined and desperate to win. With the help of Suren’s counselling and having gathered experiences from the camp, he is now emotionally mature and can take better care of himself.
India journey begins
In 2014, Suren got a call from an AIFF official asking him to send some talented boys born in the year 2000 for the U-16 Academy in Goa. Earlier, Suren had sent across six 1999-born boys from Sikkim to the AIFF camp in Bangalore. The quality of the boys had upheld Suren’s reputation as a dependable scout. From his 2014 brood, he sent two, one of whom was Komal, who by now had spent three years under Suren.
Again it was Komal’s grit and dedication that prompted the selectors to give him a go at the BRICS tourney. Prior to the start of the series government sports officials including Joint Director of Sports, Secretary of Sports and Minister of Sports who were in Goa at that time made it a point to meet Komal.
That BRICS goal against Brazil made a veritable hero out of him. Afterall, he became the first Indian to score against the mythical Brazilians.
When he came down to Bagdogra after the tournament, all his hostel mates were there to receive him. And during his transit through the West Bengal-Sikkim border check post, about 125-150 local children gathered to welcome Komal. He didn’t go home straight but maintained an overnight stay at Namchi. And on returning to his village – all the students of Timberbung and Soreng cordoned him in a wish to get a glimpse of their rising star.
Very affable and soft-spoken, Komal would be found to be surrounded by his neighbourhood children whenever he visits home. Much in demand for local football tournaments whenever he’s available, not as a player but as a guest, he doesn’t let go to this adulation go to his head.
Humble that he is, Komal maintains that he is only trying to play well just like everybody else. He would never forget those who were with him to put him on this pedestal, especially his Suren Sir. Komal did dedicate his BRICS Cup goal against Brazil goal to him. Watch the goal in its full glory.
Komal’s mind is pristine – perhaps that’s why he exhibits a penchant for white clothing and extends that spectrum in his liking for Real Madrid. Very fond of shoes, his burgeoning collection of 5-6 pairs, of course, is yet to match his favourite player, Cristiano Ronaldo’s. Sometimes a hip-hop ghost rides on his slim shoulders. He would be seen moving about in such typical style with a snap back angled across his dyed and tousled hair. He has his 15-year-old younger sister, Tarina, for good company in this matter of style.
He is young and maturing quickly. The Indian national team camp experience has made him faster has also brought about in an added confidence – both as a player and a person. His pre-match fear has completely disappeared and an all round development reflects on his face and body-language.
Komal certainly has exhibited all the attributes to be a champion midfielder and is the blue-eyed boy of the current Indian Colts squad not for nothing