I see myself at Chennaiyin for many years: Anirudh Thapa

  • Six years at the club, the India midfielder says being named captain means he can’t be "naughty" anymore
Goa: Anirudh Thapa of Chennaiyin FC scores a goal during match 20 of season 8 of Indian Super League played between Northeast United FC and Chennaiyin FC, at Fatorda Stadium in Goa, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (PTI Photo)(PTI11_29_2021_000366B)(PTI) PREMIUM
Goa: Anirudh Thapa of Chennaiyin FC scores a goal during match 20 of season 8 of Indian Super League played between Northeast United FC and Chennaiyin FC, at Fatorda Stadium in Goa, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (PTI Photo)(PTI11_29_2021_000366B)(PTI)
Published on Dec 07, 2021 07:19 PM IST
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By, Kolkata

Anirudh Thapa has scored once and played every second of Chennaiyin FC’s campaign so far. Had his teammates been less profligate, Thapa’s vision and passing accuracy would have fetched three assists against SC East Bengal alone. Twice winners of the Indian Super League (ISL), Chennaiyin FC (CFC) have named the India midfielder captain. He is in his final year at the club and is 23.

All that would make him one of the most sought after players in 2022. But clubs needn’t bother because Thapa is already taken. “I see myself as a Chennaiyin FC player for many years, I guess,” he said, in an interview. Already six years at CFC, the man from Dehradun could be for the Chennai football club what one man from Ranchi is to the city’s franchise cricket team — a symbol of permanence amid constant churn.

ALSO READ| Not easy to focus on football now: Anirudh Thapa

‘Wonder boy’ to leader

“When I came in, I was just an 18-year-old kid and the fans called me ‘wonder boy’. It feels recent when I would come on as substitute and now I am leading the team. To be honest, I don’t have words to say how I have grown,” said Thapa, during a Zoom interaction through most of which a smile lit up the bright, boyish face.

The journey that begun with Thapa being spotted in an under-16 tournament near Kolkata, being tracked through an under-15 South Asian competition and sponsored for a training stint at FC Metz in Ligue 1 has seen the attacking midfielder grow into one of the first names John Gregory and Owen Coyle, coaches under whom CFC won the ISL in 2017-18 and were runners-up in 2019-20 respectively, would put on the team sheet. Through Csaba Laszlo and now Bozidar Bandovic that has continued for the Kevin de Bruyne fan.

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In that journey, the 2019-20 campaign stands out for Thapa because CFC, last for most of the league, were left with a “2% chance of making the playoffs, according to a social media report.” Had they won the final— CFC lost 1-3 to ATK— it would have been a fairytale season, he said. With one goal in four successive losses and five points from seven games, Thapa said the turning point was in the 3-4 loss to FC Goa.

“We were losing 0-3 in first half. (Coach) Owen (Coyle) shouted at us, saying we were giving them goals. Second half, we scored two goals, they scored one more and we scored again in the 90th minute. From there on, we kept believing, kept trying and we were just scoring. It was the confidence that led to players believing in themselves and in their teammates.”

Unbeaten in their last eight league games, winning six of them, CFC made the semi-finals where they beat FC Goa 4-1 at home. Thapa showed his knack for crucial, and often spectacular, goals for club and country by scoring one. It was his only one in a season where he also has six assists.

Thapa has led the All India Football Federation’s academy team to an IFA Shield title and, along with Subhasish Bose, was named skipper for the 2018 SAFF Championship. Last term, Laszlo made him captain for one game. But getting the armband for the season is different. “With so many good foreigners, you are the captain of the team! They have played in big leagues, some of them have also played for their national teams,” he said.

“I know he is a leader. He has personality. This is his team. He built his character and personality in this team and of course his career,” said Bandovic.

Leadership is a responsibility Thapa said he enjoys but it has also meant giving up on something. “I can’t be the old Anirudh...the mischievous one, the naughty one.”

ALSO READ| Anirudh Thapa to lead Chennaiyin FC in upcoming season of ISL

Following his appointment, the club’s media release quoted Thapa as saying he needs to grow a little faster. “Because we have only 20 games, if we qualify, 23. In our league we don’t have that much time to learn,” he said.

The brevity of the Indian season, the six-month gap between them, makes it difficult for players to maintain their levels, said Thapa. “It is also one of the reasons why so many players get injured. It is difficult to be in shape for six months (with no football) when you have family, friends. I think when we are at the club that is the best way we can be fit.”

The Chhetri influence

What doesn’t get talked about as much with Thapa is fitness. He hasn’t had a muscle injury and missed games last term only due to a poor challenge. On Friday, against SC East Bengal, Thapa turned on the afterburners in the fifth minute of stoppage time, beat a challenge and produced a delivery from the goalline with his weaker left foot.

“I think it’s natural,” Thapa said. But he does take care to eat right and get enough sleep. Traits he and other young India players have imbibed from captain Sunil Chhetri. “Like what should we eat, how much we should rest, he was on point. Even now if any player is having something bad, he will stop him and tell the player why this is not good,” said Thapa.

Thapa and Chhetri scored in the 4-1 win against Thailand in the 2019 Asian Cup opener. It was India’s first win at the elite continental competition since 1964. That day in UAE, India showed they can play football, said Thapa. Thapa’s second international goal too was against Thailand, in the 2019 King’s Cup; his third came this year, an equaliser in an away friendly against Nepal.

The return of six goals for CFC and three for India is not enough, he said. Thapa said his game in the offensive third needs work and that he needs to score more. Scoring is an area of concern for the national team too, said Thapa. “In the SAFF also, in the first two games we got chances but were not able to convert… I am happy to see many Indians scoring goals in this ISL season (16 in the first 20 games). Hopefully that can turn things around for the national team as well.”

That would be crucial for India’s qualifying campaign for the 2023 Asian Cup. For Thapa those games are an important step to fulfilling the goal of getting out of the group stage of the Asian Cup. In 2019, they were seconds away from doing that but lost 0-1 to Bahrain through a late penalty. “It was sad, it was heartbreaking…We will work hard and we will reach there soon. Next year we have the qualifiers and we will try and complete our goal,” he said.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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