RFYS-beneficiary Thomas Cherian knocking on India Under-16 team’s door

In a very short time, teen centre-back Thomas Cherian has made big strides in Indian football. Not long ago, he was playing football in the public parks of Delhi as an 11-year-old and in less than five years, he is now part of the All India Football Federation’s national camp that aims at identifying talents for the next Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-16 championships which also act as a qualifier for the FIFA U-20 World Cup to be held in 2025.      

Cherian had no idea that while he was representing the Government Oriental Higher Secondary School from Edathanattukara (Kerala) -- following his move from Delhi at the behest of his uncle who saw the spark in him and guided him to the Gokulam Kerala FC Academy in Kozhikode to hone his skills -- in the Junior Boys category of the National Finals of the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) tournament in Mumbai in 2019-20, there were eyes of the AIFF scouts trained on him. As his team finished runners-up, the good news came before long that he was selected for the Under-16 national camp based on his performance in the RFYS tournament.

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

Suneer VP, head coach at the Gokulam Kerala FC Academy and who played a major role in the sharpening of Cherian’s talents, echoes the sentiments of his disciple.

“Schools in Kerala are focusing on the RFYS event and practise towards it during the year. 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,” he says.

India’s U-16 coach Shivendu Panda, who is currently overseeing the development of the young colts assembled at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, believes the RFYS is a “significant platform” that aides the AIFF in no small measure in terms of unearthing talents all over the country. About Cherian, he says: “The killer mentality that he possesses is a positive attribute. 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.”

Reminiscing about Cherian’s arrival at the Gokulam Kerala FC Academy, Suneer says: “His physique was one of the main reasons we picked him after a three-day selection camp. 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.”

In his early days as a footballer, Cherian had a predilection for strikers and was one as he could run real fast but later switched to defensive roles, and he explains what caused this change. “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,” the Sandesh Jhingan and Sergio Ramos fan says with a smile.

That’s very powerful and evocative and speaks of his passion for the game of football. With so much going for him in terms of footballing talents and thought process, fans in India, without harbouring any fear of being unfairly demanding, can expect Cherian to achieve even greater heights sooner rather than later.

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