Ashiq Vithayathil is an Indian footballer who has been playing in Europe for the better part of the last decade. The 24-year-old right-back, who can also play as a defensive midfielder, is currently plying his trade for Spanish side CD Tablero.
Vithayathil left the country after earning a trial with Italian Serie A side AS Roma, where he played for the reserve team as a teenager. The young man brushed shoulders with the likes of Edin Dzeko, Stephan El-Shaarawy and Francesco Totti in what was a "dream come true" moment.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Vithayathil spoke about his experience of European football as an Indian.
The Kerala-born defender was asked what separates European football from their Indian counterparts. Vithayathil said:
"Over here, the game's more about the mental aspect. It does not mean that physical traits and techniques are not important. On the contrary, they are regarded as basic requirements, and hence players are trained to overcome immense mental barriers as well."
Vithayathil went on to explain how technical aspects like a player's first-touch, spatial awareness and intensity to play ninety minutes are taught from a very young age. This is in stark contrast to how things operate at the grassroots level of Indian football.
"The players over here are trained from the age of six or seven. Naturally, by the time they are teenagers, their first touch becomes impeccable. To play ninety minutes of professional football, week in, week out, is second nature to these budding footballers," said Vithayathil, whose only experience of regular football as a child back in India were the annual tournaments.
He went on to add that clubs in all divisions in Spain follow the structure and training regime set out by the Spanish NT. Vithayathil, who has had stints with clubs in Germany and Italy as well, spoke about the mental aspect of the game in Europe. He said:
"It is all-consuming. I stay up for nights thinking about the one wrong first touch I had in training; it is that unforgiving. It becomes even more difficult because I can't run in the next day to give my all and be satisfied. There is a lot of tactical play involved and so on top of being at my 100%, I also have to revert to the team strategy for each and every second I am on the pitch."
Vithayathil, who has taken the brave step of choosing to develop his career in Europe, also spoke about the challenges of living abroad and playing with the locals of another country. He said:
"To be honest, Tablero is not the biggest city in Spain. The people here are mostly locals and do not really warm up to outsiders in the team. Finger-pointing for any bad result in a match or a mistake in the training usually ends with us being told off."
To put it gently, this is adversity which most Indian footballers have not faced before. Even though they face plenty of other challenges, the comfort of playing in their home country brings with it a sense of security - something which Vithayathil misses a lot. He said:
"Every time I feel down, I think of my idol - Cristiano Ronaldo. He's arguably one of the best players ever to grace the game, yet he is hated professionally for no good reason by so many people (especially in other countries). It helps me put my situation into perspective and reminds me to keep driving, no matter how difficult the challenge is."
Vithayathil is one of the few Indians amongst billions to play European football
Playing and training in Europe for seven years has certainly given Vithayathil a unique viewpoint of understanding where Indian football is lacking. He said:
"It's mostly the opportunity for kids here to play matches week in, week out. Then there are better scouting systems organized by the Spanish FA which run across the country. People also need to focus not just on the technical improvement but also the mentality of the players. Teenagers need to be put through that rigorous training from an early age of thriving in difficult situations on the pitch."
Vithayathil is keen to develop his career in Europe but the Keralite in him is not rigidly opposed to returning home. He did admit his desire to play for his home team, Indian Super League (ISL) side Kerala Blasters. Vithayathil said:
"To be honest, I would want to don that yellow jersey one day. They play an attacking brand of football, something I can resonate with. My game is also always about being aggressive and attacking the opposition goal. I would be very open to the idea of scouts approaching me for video tapes of my game. My training in tough conditions has prepared me for big occasions and playing for Kerala in the ISL is definitely on that list."
Despite living in Europe for quite some time now, the young footballer is strongly attached to his roots. When asked what he hopes to achieve next, his answer was more about the comfort and happiness of his parents than his personal dreams. Vithayathil said:
"I would want to buy my parents a house in Kerala. They have done a lot for me over the years. Besides a few of my friends, they are my support system. It would be very nice to see them live in a house in Kerala."
Vithayathil's bold decision to step out of the country and build a career in Europe has forced him to face enormous challenges. One of them is the hoax surrounding the agents available to players on social media. Vithayathil had a warning for all Indian footballers regarding these agents and said:
"There are numerous agents available today, thanks to social media. The problem is most of them are either fake or just incapable of helping a player make it to Europe or any other country for that matter. So don't be lured in by their fancy Instagram handle or their contacts. The decision is tricky to make as many of them will just tag you along to make money by giving you trials where you will never realistically make it."
Vithayathil, or 'Thiago' (as he is called by his team-mates), signed off with a harsh but motivating message for all budding footballers who want to make it to the pinnacle of European football. When asked about how more players can follow his path, Vithayathil said:
"Do not focus on coming to Spain or Germany. Focus on your game - make your first touch impeccable, practice every day, and play as many matches as possible so you can be confident when you are on the pitch. Treat adversity with respect but challenge it for every second you are on that field. You are your most difficult opponent, unless you can improve on what you were yesterday."
As the CD Tablero full-back put it, there are no shortcuts to making it big. However, Vithyathil is living proof that fighting every day on the pitch will get you results eventually.