After pleasing and frustrating in equal measures at the Asian Cup, India is once again piercing the continent’s footballing consciousness. With ongoing rumbles concerning league restructure, a new national team coach set to be appointed and a raft of up and coming young starlets, the immediate future looks to be as interesting as it regularly is controversial. Martin Lowe continues our look at Asia’s Rising Stars, by focussing on the Indian player who stole many of our hearts in January, centre midfield maestro Anirudh Thapa, and how the coming six months look set to make or break his early career.
Name: Anirudh Thapa
Position: Centre Midfield
Commanding a less than imposing 5ft 7in frame, the performances of Anirudh Thapa at the Asian Cup broadly snuck under the radar. The pocket-sized midfielder may have exited the tournament prematurely (India were the first to bow out of the group stage thanks to a last minute Bahrain penalty) but alongside his teammates, Thapa had successfully fulfilled the argument that India’s place at the top table of Asian football was indeed a worthy one.
The opening round hammering of Thailand, where Thapa opened his national team account with a delicately placed chip over the keeper, was India flexing their new-found muscle. A side managed by the then under fire coach Stephan Constantine had somewhat sleepwalked into their perfect tactical shape to best utilise the playing staff at their disposal; a strong defensive shield, marshalled expertly by centre back Sandesh Jhingan, before hitting on the counter through the speed of Udanta Singh and Halicharan Narzary.
Within this, Thapa – in a deep central position – excelled on both sides of the tactical coin; starting deep and positioning himself well to pick up necessary interceptions, before unleashing counter attacks at speed with an array of pinpoint out-balls. As his debut goal against the War Elephants proved, his physical ability to join the attack and contribute in a goal-scoring capacity allude to a future that Indian fans watching on from the stands were visibly energised by.
Thapa’s career to date has been that of slow progress through the ranks, but with it has come plenty of expectation from his employers and the nation’s supporter base. Making his way through various AIFF Academies, pinpointed as a star in the making amongst his peers, impressive youth national team performances and a headline stirring trial with French club Metz (facilitated by his parent club) sprinkled fairy dust on a fledgling career that had barely got going before many were tipping him for great things.
Upon his eventual breakthrough domestically, Thapa had built solidly on his formative years of development, the Asian Cup being his early career road marker. Having debuted three years ago, for then coach and previous World Cup winner Marco Materazzi, via a successful loan period at I-League club Minerva Punjab, last season was the true making of the man and the player. Nailing down a starting spot in the central midfield of Indian Super League champions Chennaiyin, Thapa went on to be awarded the Emerging Player of the Year award for his season’s achievements.
He was described by former Aston Villa boss, now head coach of Chennaiyin, John Gregory as “a great passer of the ball and someone who has great feet. He’s got a good first touch and he looks after the ball, he’s quick and knows how to keep the ball in control and moving which adds to his credit as a good midfield player.” Within a season, Thapa had gone from hyped up youngster, to one of the league’s best home-grown midfielders.
Upon domestic success, came recognition on the international stage. Despite concerns over his size, Thapa’s work rate, aside from his undoubted technical skill highly impressed then coach Constantine, who picked him out for special dispensation in June; “Someone like Thapa has an outstanding work rate. We need (more) players like him.”
From that point on, the young playmaker was Constantine’s staple in the side; excelling at the nation’s Intercontinental Cup in June (which India won), and their subsequent finals appearance at the regional SAFF Suzuki Cup in September. Thapa even filled in as a false nine away in Jordan in the run-up to the Asian Cup, as India experienced an attacking shortage.
Thapa was starting to live up to the hype. Gelling impressively with Brazilian Raphael Augusto for Chennaiyin, the duo had formed an eye-catching partnership domestically, but it was for the national team where Thapa took the lead. The second match reversal to the hosts UAE at the Asian Cup, which could’ve easily gone either way, curtailed their progress, but Thapa again drew the plaudits.
For their pivotal encounter against Bahrain, India ultimately let themselves down. A reported back injury to Thapa in the run-up to the match left the Blue Tigers devoid of artistry from deep, and as the game ebbed away, Constantine reverted to deeper and deeper defensive tactics that failed to force home the required point.
A missed opportunity it undoubtedly was, but it has the potential to spur on a monumental year of change for Indian football. Stephen Constantine’s resignation upon Asian Cup elimination wipes the slate clean for a new chapter, a chapter in which domestic reform needs to take shape.
After years of infighting within the AIFF and its splinter cells, leading to the current preposterous scenario of running two simultaneous “top flight” competitions – the traditional I-League and the heavily bankrolled franchise Indian Super League – the AFC have quite rightly demanded clarity on the situation ahead of the summer. A clear merger, however it turns out, is desperately required. In all likelihoods, this will see the Indian Super League win out, given they have the prestige, the momentum and the star players behind them, but an agreement seems some months off.
For the time being, the current league season is drawing to a close, after a quick break for January’s Asian Cup. Struggling for fitness and favour, however, Thapa has struggled to return with the same swagger he displayed at the turn of the year.
Backing up their second ever Indian Super League title, Chennaiyin have been nothing short of woeful this term, already guaranteeing themselves the wooden spoon with a week to spare. To evade their struggles and with an AFC Cup appearance ahead of them, Chennaiyin have added steel to their armoury, with Australian midfielder Chris Herd joining during the January break, denting Thapa’s starting chances in the season’s run in.
The prospective AFC Cup campaign (Chennaiyin will have to navigate past Colombo of Sri Lanka in the preliminaries) offers Thapa the continental stage needed to get his club career back on the right tracks. If they are to be successful in making it to the tournament group stages, a tantalising matchup with I-League champions Minerva Punjab in the group stage, Thapa’s former employers no less, offers an ignition point as merger talks come to a head. For the clubs and fans of the ISL, Chennaiyin need to demonstrate their superior quality to bolster their cause, but from an individual standpoint Thapa needs to be the side’s catalyst once again.
With an AFC U-23 Championship qualification campaign also on the horizon, Thapa’s shop window opportunities seem numerate at present, but ahead of another World Cup cycle starting later this year, where a new coach is still to be announced and a competitive looking cohort of youngsters (Vinit Rai of Delhi Dynamos and Pronay Halder at ATK looking well placed to leapfrog Thapa in India’s starting plans) amasses around him, a promising career can very easily be over before it’s even properly taken off.
We’re a month on from the Asian Cup, but it might as well be five years, as Anirudh Thapa struggles to replicate his scintillating national team form upon return to domestic football. After proving his magic in the Emirates, the coming months will be integral for this young player’s development to move to the next level, a player who has all the capabilities to become his nation’s next talisman.