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Remembering VP Sathyan, India's forgotten 'Captain'

Sathyan represented India in 40 matches and led the team in 26
Sathyan represented India in 40 matches and led the team in 26

There's a scene in the movie 'Captain', a freshly-minted Malayalam biopic on former India defender VP Sathyan, which tries to capture the conflict raging in the injured footballer's mind, between giving up one match and the longevity of his limbs.

The camera is focused on the protagonist from an immobile ceiling fan above as he painfully straddles a football between his feet, one of them wrapped in a bandage, and tosses it against the switchboard to turn it on. It's also meant to be symbolic of him having chosen the latter, more perilous option of ditching medical logic for mad passion. He ends up paying for it with a truncated career, plumbing depths of depressive behavior and eventually his own life.

For the ISL generation, Sathyan may not be a particularly familiar name. A former India captain and doughty defender who started his career in 1983 turning out for Kerala at the Santosh Trophy, Sathyan went on to represent the country in 40 matches until his retirement in 1997. Hailing from Kannur, he was part of the once-formidable Kerala Police team which won Federation Cup titles on the trot. He also briefly turned out for Kolkata's Mohammedan Sporting club before moving to Mohun Bagan for two seasons. He then returned to Kerala Police before finally moving to Chennai to join the Indian Bank side.

Best remembered for his scorching 35-yard footer in the 1986 Merdeka tournament against South Korea which took India into the semi-finals, Sathyan helped end Kerala's 17-year Santosh Trophy title drought in 1992 and was part of the India squad that cantered to a gold-medal finish at the 1995 SAF Games in Chennai.

However, despite the plucky performances, the fame that followed fellow Kerala players IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri never came Sathyan's way.

The Malayalam film 'Captain' shows Sathyan haunted by an aggravated injury condition
The Malayalam film 'Captain' shows Sathyan haunted by an aggravated injury condition

"I think it had a lot to do with his role of being a defender in the side," Vijayan tells ESPN. "We played many matches together in the national team with him as captain and me serving as vice-captain. I used to often joke with him that he should consider retiring so that I get a chance at captaincy. He rarely got the limelight but his indispensability in the team was evident when he missed even one match.

"I remember, he had two yellow cards so couldn't play against South Korea in Seoul at the 1993 World Cup qualifiers. I was named captain but with our best defender out it might have been possible that our then goalkeeper Hemanta Dora felt unnerved and ended up falling sick. We ended up losing 7-0. That's the kind of difference a player like Sathyan could make to the team."

Ancheri, who also played under Sathyan's captaincy, recalls him as a player who stayed on in the practice field long after the rest of the team members had cleared out.

"He was a terrific player with an intimidating exterior but a soft heart and a crazy love for the game. When I was young, I traveled everywhere from Thrissur to Coimbatore to watch him play. Even when I came into sport, money was little and opportunities few so he encouraged me to try my luck in Kolkata clubs. There was so much more he deserved, but so little of it that he actually got."

Prajesh Sen, the director of the film, throws light on the life of anonymity that Sathyan lived through the re-telling of an incident that took place at the Bengaluru airport when he was still India captain. Sathyan is shown poring over a newspaper at the airport with his wife teasing him for not being recognized by anyone around. Just then a young girl walks up to Sathyan, introduces herself as a sports fan and requests for a pen. The couple exchange glances of joy and relief but it's short-lived as she darts off to seek an autograph from Ravi Shastri in the VIP lounge. For the record, Sathyan hasn't even won an Arjuna Award.

Sathyan began his career in 1983, turning out for Kerala in the Santosh Trophy
Sathyan began his career in 1983, turning out for Kerala in the Santosh Trophy

"Yes that memory is still fresh in my mind," wife Anitha Sathyan says. "He never really got the due he deserved as a player but that never stopped him from giving all he could on the field." 

Interestingly, South Indian actor Jayasurya, who portrays Sathyan's character in this elegy, told ESPN that until he took up the project, he had never played football in his life.

"I think that's the greatest irony of the film. As a child I never played much sport because I suffered from episodes of rheumatic fever. For this movie I took up football training for over three months with Sathyan's coaches TV Joy and CC Jacob. But to do justice to the character, it wasn't enough for me to just kick the ball around. I had to do so with the swagger and conviction of a captain."

The ubiquitous Mallapuram - a district in Kerala known for its obsession for the sport - football fan also finds identity in the film through an anonymous character with a greying Afro and a red-blue saddle bag who is referred to as Maidanam or playing field. He travels wherever the game takes him, cheers and hoots a goal, rebukes an insipid performance and appears out of nowhere on an inky night to offer tips on the right way to tie the laces of playing boots. He also tells you how knowledgeable the average football fan in Malabar is.

The motivation behind the movie, Prajesh explains, was to get the country to know the gifted footballer's unrewarded legacy.

Prajesh Sen, the director of the film, said his aim was to educate the country about Sathyan's unrewarded legacy
Prajesh Sen, the director of the film, said his aim was to educate the country about Sathyan's unrewarded legacy

"The biggest challenge for us was to get hold of video footage of Sathyan. There's hardly any available at all. So our only window into this largely unknown player's life and mind was through his wife, former friends and acquaintances."

More than Sathyan's playing career, a large chunk of the movie deals with how an aggravated injury condition and a shortened career wreaked havoc with Sathyan's mind and threw him into the pits of despair.

In 2006, at the age of 41, Sathyan was run over by a suburban electric train at the Pallavaram station in Chennai. Four suicide notes, addressed to different people, were recovered from his body. 

"He used to tell me how despite the suicidal tendencies he never could get himself to take such an extreme step," wife Anitha says. "He carried suicide notes with him but with no intention of actually executing it. I was pained when after his death everyone wrote about how financial debt drove him to death which was untrue. Football was everything for him. He played with a steel rod implanted in his left leg throughout his life after suffering a serious injury as a young child. It worsened as his career progressed and doctors advised us to remove the rod but he feared it might take him away from the sport and never agreed for it. But once he was longer in a position to continue playing, he was totally crushed. He couldn't make peace with a life away from football."

In a heartbreaking scene towards the close of the movie, Sathyan is shown inflating a football for his young daughter with his own breath, face flushed and nerves sticking out of his temples. It's to be ominous in many ways. Almost as if to say that he even gave the last mouthfuls of air in his lungs to the sport. Just a little later, Sathyan is shown to have been run over by a train.

Once his body is brought back to his somber neighborhood in Kerala, Maidanam steps out of the gathering of mourners, lifts the tricolor that wraps the remains and peeks a final glance at his favourite player's face. He walks back content: "Ippozhum avande mugathu oru kalli jayicha chiri ondu" (He still has a smile of having won a match).

For a generation that long turned the page on one of India's finest defenders, this could be a chance to reconcile with a forgotten great from another era.

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