I spoke a mix of English and Tamil during this interview and I was happy that I still could string sentences together in a somewhat fluent manner.
In Cricket Crazy India, there has been a recent surge in support for football. Don’t get me wrong, there have always been a dedicated minority in India that are passionate about the beautiful game. However, cricket is the national sport and whenever the national team plays, the nation goes into a frenzy. While football has not yet enacted a similar response, there has been an increasing interest in the local footballing scene.
One club to be making waves recently is Chennai City FC. The club won the 2018-19 I-League title under the management of Singaporean Head coach Akbar Nawas. One player to have featured in the previous as well as the current season is Sriram Boopathi. Sriram Boopathi is a name probably unfamiliar to many outside of Tamil Nadu but make no mistake, he is an integral part of Akbar Nawas’s revolution at Chennai City FC. I had the pleasure of interviewing him the previous week and I am privileged to share his story.
Beginnings as a Footballer in Tamil Nadu
Growing up in Salem, Tamil Nadu, Sriram only started to play football when he was in the 6th Standard (11 years old) at Little Flower School. Unlike many of us who watch football while growing up, Sriram first started to watch football on the television the 11th Standard (16 years old). However, it was during his days in college when he began to follow football religiously. As an 18-year-old, he fell in love with FC Barcelona, and he still idolizes Lionel Messi, a player who he tries to emulate his game after. Before his interest in football, like most Indians, Sriram was an avid cricket player. However, the closure of his Little Flower’s cricket ground opened the way for Sriram to pick up football instead.
“At the beginning, it was cricket. We used to play cricket all the time at school. Then due to some issue at school, they removed cricket as a co-curricular activity. I can’t recall what the issue was exactly, but it had something to do with some fights that broke out between students playing cricket. I was still a young kid, so I don’t remember why it was taken out exactly.”
“The school already had a football team, and some people were playing football [before the removal of cricket]. The cricket pitch remained, but most of the 500 students started to play football instead. So since everyone else was playing, I decided to play football as well. That’s how I started kicking the ball around.”
That went on until the end of his 7th Standard, when he was selected to represent the school football team. It was at this juncture when Sriram learned the proper basics of football and learned to reprise the role of a midfielder. I was taken aback when he revealed that his coach regularly deployed him as a holding midfielder in an unorthodox 4-2-4 formation, something that most schools apparently utilized. His time at Little Flower didn’t just provide him with the taste of football, but it also motivated him to forge a career out of it. He honed his craft as best as he could at the school, and it was time to take the next step – college.
The next chapter of his footballing career saw him gain entry to Jeppiaar Engineering College through a footballing scholarship. He had attended trials at a few engineering colleges. He ultimately decided to accept the offer from Jeppiar, because it was a highly well-known college for football development in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu and the primary footballing hub of the state. Before the formation of ISL club Chennaiyin FC in 2013 and the admittance of Chennai City FC into the I-League in 2016, for the longest of times there were no professional football clubs in Chennai. Instead, many semi-professional and “government teams” played in the Chennai League, which most regard as the highest level of footballing competition in the state.
What are “government teams,” you ask? Well, I had the same question when Sriram first mentioned the term. Luckily, Sriram explained it as clearly as possible. I guess that made sense since he signed up for one after playing for Jeppiar.
“Government teams are footballing teams that represent various bodies of the government. What these teams do is that they will provide you with both a government job and the ability to play for these teams in the Chennai League. That’s how I got offered a job at Chennai Customs – it was through football.”
Realizing his Dream as a Chennai City FC
Two years ago, Chennai City FC held their routine yearly trials to add more local Tamil talent to the squad. These trials usually consist of upwards of 50 players, and out of the 50, Chennai City would select the number of players they believe they need. Sriram was overjoyed when he managed to make the cut, but his first season wasn’t one that sparked immediate fireworks. He had to wait a while before he could make his debut for the club.
“After signing for the club, I had to wait until matchday 10 before I featured in starting eleven for the club. Until then, I did not even make the first team. I was always on standby. Then my break came in the 10th match of the season, and I went on to play for the subsequent 2 matches. However, during my 3rd match for the club against East Bengal, I fractured my collar bone, and I was sidelined for a month before coming back for the last 3 league matches.”
It was heartbreaking for the player who felt like he was getting into the rhythm of things.
“It was scary at first, and I feared that I had permanently lost my place in the squad. I had just received the chance to play after a long time, and I was performing decently well, gradually improving as each game went by. So when I got injured, I was really down initially. Then, as I began to recover progressively, the feeling to work hard and reclaim my spot in the team grew. It was also heartening when the coach started to ask me if I was fully fit or not and began to monitor my recovery.”
Fortunately, the club did whatever treatment they could to expedite his recovery, and in 30 days, exactly a month, Sriram returned to the squad. Even better, he regained his spot in the first team and featured in the final three games for the club.
Despite his injury setback, it is safe to say that Sriram benefited a lot from signing with Chennai City FC. He learned a lot from his coaches, including an array of footballing terms and tactics. On top of that, it was the first time he attended footballing theory classes. I won’t lie, when I first heard Sriram describe how much he learned in his first season with the club, it sounded like a daunting task to absorb the information thrown at him. However, the midfielder assured me that was far from the case.
“It felt interesting to learn so much, and it reminded me that there is so much more to learn about football. I felt motivated to learn more and put in more effort to become a better player.”
This season was a different story for the midfielder who has featured prominently in the first team. Playing a total of 14 matches, Sriram has scored his first-ever professional goal and provided two assists in this campaign before the COVID-19 resultant suspension of the league.
Working under Akbar Nawas and Scoring his First Goal
Speaking of coaches, Akbar Nawas is a name familiar to Singaporean football fans. Previously the Tampines Rovers Head coach, Akbar went on to manage Global Cebu in the Philippines before taking up the reigns at Chennai City FC. In his debut season with Chennai, he guided the Tamil Nadu club to their first-ever I-League title in 2019. Sriram says that it is both an honour and joy to work under a coach like Akbar. Akbar is a role model for Singaporean coaches, and I’ve been a fan of Akbar for some time now, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask Sriram about his coach.
“He cares a lot about his players. He will make it a point to call on each individual player to know them off the field and is generally a nice jovial guy. On the field, he’s a completely different person. He is very serious when it comes to training and match preparation, and puts a lot of pressure on us so that we grow as players.”
I was also curious about how Akbar overcame the language barrier. Interestingly, while Akbar has picked up some Tamil, he mainly relays his instructions in English with Assistant Coach and fellow Singaporean Satyasagara translating the instructions in Tamil.
In his second season in charge, it appears that the club has placed a greater emphasis on playing more domestic footballers so that they can develop. Encouraging the development of domestic players is something that club owner Rohit Ramesh shares as well. In the 2018-2019 season, most first-team positions were taken up by the 5 foreign import footballers at the club. However, this season has seen foreign footballers only occupying an average of 3 places in the starting eleven. One player to benefit from this move is none other than Sriram. Before the league’s suspension, he played 14 out of a possible 15 matches for the club, where he provided 2 assists and experienced the unforgettable joy of netting his first senior goal for the club.
“It was an away match against Gokulam Kerala, and I scored the 3rd goal in that game. I will never forget that moment. Prior to that, for some time, I had been trying to score a goal but I could not convert my chances. I recall how I was so thrilled that I scored my first goal for the club that I was speechless when my teammates came over to congratulate me. I think it was extra special because it was away against the Kerala crowd who are known to be very loud and vocal supporters.”
Playing Continental Football and Aspirations for the Future
Since Chennai were crowned I-League champions last campaign, they gained entrance to the AFC Champions League Preliminary Qualifying Round 1. Every footballer in Asia aims to one day play in the AFC Champions League or AFC Cup, but Sriram didn’t realize how big the AFC Champions League was.
“Actually, I only realized the magnitude of the competition when I played in the AFC Champions League. You have to understand everything was new to me but the level was really much higher than anything I’ve played in before. I was nervous a bit but also very much excited that I was going to play in a continental game.”
Even though Chennai City lost to Bahrainian champions Al-Riffa, they can hold their heads up high for narrowly losing the game 1-0. On a tactical level, Chennai gave Al-Riffa a lot of issues, but the Indian club did miss a lot of chances as well. However, that exit from the Champions League led to Chennai featuring in the AFC Cup instead. Chennai have done well thus far in the Cup, drawing 2-2 against Maldives side Maziya Sports and Recreation Club. Sriram was raring to play the other matches, but the COVID pandemic has temporarily halted the competition.
While the immediate goal is to resume playing football, Sriram does have certain ambitions he has set his sight on for the future. Besides wanting to hone his craft further at the club, he wants to attend training stints with overseas clubs to improve his game further. Thankfully, Chennai City FC are keen to assist their footballer development, and last year, they sent 3 players for trials in Europe. It is an opportunity that Sriram would seize if presented to him, but he is currently dedicated to helping his club reach its goals and ambitions. Moreover, like all professional footballers, Sriram hopes to one day represent his country.
Sriram has a bright future ahead of him if he continues his diligent work ethic. However, what he needs the most is game time, and the current pandemic is preventing him from getting that. It doesn’t seem like that would happen anytime soon, with daily COVID-19 cases still in the high numbers. There might be hope for his AFC Cup ambitions, with talk of the tournament potentially resuming later on in the year where a single country would host remaining matches. It’s just a matter of time before we see Sriram up his game to the next level and cement his status as a difference-maker in the Chennai City FC squad.
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