How Kozhikode teen footballer Thomas Cherian rose rapidly to national spotlight

For an 11-year-old who began kicking a football around in Delhi’s public parks to be on the verge of a national call-up within five years is the stuff of dreams.
How Kozhikode teen footballer Thomas Cherian rose rapidly to national spotlight
How Kozhikode teen footballer Thomas Cherian rose rapidly to national spotlight
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There are times Thomas Cherian has to pinch himself to believe how far he’s come. At the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar these days, Thomas is among a group of select boys from around the country who have been called up to the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) national camp to identify the squad for the next Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-16 championships. If he does make the cut, Thomas will wear India colours at a tournament that acts as a qualifier for the next FIFA U-20 World Cup to be held in 2025. For an 11-year-old who began kicking a football around in public parks in Delhi to be on the verge of a potential national call-up within five years is already the stuff of dreams.

Born in 2005 to Cherian Mathew, a sales executive, and Mariamma Cherian, a government employee, Thomas is the younger of two brothers. As a nine-year-old, Thomas was noticeably skilled at sport and showed promise as a sprinter. Initially reluctant to support their son’s inclination towards pursuing sport, his parents gradually became an encouraging presence. Playing football came naturally and given his eye-catching speed, Thomas’ first foray into the sport was as a striker. However, as he started to grasp the nuances of football, he preferred the role of centre-back so he could stay involved for the entire duration of the contest.

“To be able to ensure that no goals are scored in the entire 90 minutes of a game is what made football attractive to me,” he smiles.

As his talent started to come forth in age-group tournaments in Delhi, Thomas’ parents recognised the need for a footballing structure to navigate his journey. His uncle Johncy, the only member of the family who had played football, convinced Cherian of his son’s potential and became Thomas’ first mentor. Certain that his nephew had the talent to succeed in the game, he urged coaches at the Gokulam Kerala FC Academy in Kozhikode to give Thomas a trial. An I-League team, Gokulam Kerala FC runs a coaching academy and it is here that Thomas, in 2019, under the guidance of head coach Suneer VP made visible improvements in his play.

“His physique was one of the main reasons we picked him after a three-day selection camp,” says Suneer. “From that camp it was clear that Thomas is a hard-working player and has the qualities of a tough defender. He is a player who gives his 100% on the field. He motivates other players and also has a great commanding power and encourages others. He doesn’t get tense on the field. He is a tough player.”

With a strong coaching system to support his development, the next pit stop in Thomas’ journey was to be the most significant yet. As a member of the Government Oriental Higher Secondary School in Edathanattukara, Thomas played a starring role as his team finished runners-up in the Junior Boys category of the National Finals of the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) tournament in Mumbai in 2019-20. Unknown to Thomas, scouts from the AIFF were at hand to track players with potential. Much to his own and his family’s disbelief, Thomas was informed that on the basis of his performances, he had been chosen to be part of the national Under-16 camp.

“For me to be selected in a national camp is nothing short of a miracle,” says Thomas. “And it has happened only because of the platform I was provided by RFYS.”

“Schools in Kerala are focusing on the RFYS event and practise towards it during the year,” adds Suneer. “Students get more attracted and attached to football due to the facilities provided at the event and this is playing a major role in improving football at the grassroots level in India. Young players get opportunities to showcase what they have learned in training. Thomas, for example, would have improved in terms of his performance but he wouldn’t have been noticed. His chances of reaching the national level would have been considerably lower had it not been for the RFYS tournament.”

India’s U-16 coach Shivendu Panda, under whose stewardship Thomas is currently training, also credits the pan-India presence of the RFYS tournament as a “significant platform” for the AIFF to identify talent and track the development of players. Impressed with Thomas’ size and structure for a player of his young age, Panda describes his ward as a “disciplined and responsible” individual who needs to work harder on his decision-making and communication with fellow defenders and midfielders.

“The killer mentality that he possesses is a positive attribute,” adds Panda. “I believe he can do better, especially when it comes to controlling different forms of marking, one-on-one situations and dealing aerial balls with power, purpose and timing.”

An admirer of Real Madrid and Spanish centre-back Sergio Ramos, and ATK Mohun Bagan and India centre-back Sandesh Jhingan, Thomas is well aware that his journey has only just begun. His focus for the moment is on what he describes as a “mission” – to break into the India U-16 squad that will carry the hopes of the country of participating in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in four years from now.

This article was created by Reliance Foundation Youth Sports as a part of a partnership with TNM to promote young sportspersons.

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