ABU DHABI // Inivalappil Mani Vijayan's story is a classic rags to riches saga, but, in this part of the world, he is remembered as the man who nearly embarrassed the UAE in the 12th Asian Cup qualifier almost 10 years ago. The former India captain, known simply as IM Vijayan, scored from a curving free kick to put his side in front in Al Ain before Saeed al Kas scored the equaliser on the hour and then gave the UAE the lead five minutes from time. Abdul Salam Jumaa's injury-time penalty completed a face-saving 3-1 victory.
Vijayan, 40, who was the special guest at the Abu Dhabi Shakti Theatre AKG memorial football tournament at the Kerala Social Centre, said: "We gave them a good scare but they were a better team and they won in the end. I must give full credit to my team, though, for a good performance and for making several thousand Indian fans feel proud. "The difference between now and then is that the UAE have taken the elevator to the top while India have been left to take the stairs. I believe the UAE are going in the right direction and have progressed to be one of the top teams in Asia. India have a lot of to do if they are to be competitive."
India won qualification to the 2011 Asian Cup finals in Qatar by winning the AFC Challenge Cup, and their under-16 team head to Saudi Arabia for the AFC Asian Championship next week. However, Vijayan said there were many problems in Indian football hampering the sport - administrative failures and the lack of quality tournaments, academies and motivation from players. Vijayan said: "In India, a major setback is that players are not ready to work hard and are not ambitious. They are satisfied with little earnings from the clubs."
The Arjuna award winner and three-times Indian Footballer of the Year said there was a lot of work to be done. "I don't think anyone can point a finger and say we lack funds and that there is no following for the sport in India. It is the lack of good administration that has been the stumbling block," he said. Vijayan became one of the highest earners in Indian football and a regular in the Indian team who won the 1999 South Asian Football Federation Cup. In that tournament he scored the fastest international goal in history, hitting the net against Bhutan after only 12 seconds. He finished top scorer in the Afro-Asian Games held in India in 2003 with four goals in his swansong competition. After retirement, Vijayan started his own academy in his home town of Trissur but was forced to close it because of the lack of funds.
He said: "We started from the funds collected through stage shows. I was helped by some of the leading artists from the Malayalam film industry to raise funds from the academy but we couldn't sustain it and had close after five years. I haven't given up hope and with help I can get it running again." Vijayan also went into acting and played the lead role in the Indian film Shantham which won the national award for best film.
"I haven't forgotten when I had to sell sodas at the stadiums for my livelihood. Thank God I have a business of my own and a future, all due to football," said Vijayan. firstname.lastname@example.org