Ahead of the Indian Super League (ISL) season, Anirudh Thapa hoped for just one thing - not to be considered a ‘young talent’ anymore.
The diminutive midfielder ensured that he proved a point against Jamshedpur FC as well with his controlled shot in the opening minute - the fourth-fastest goal in ISL - to hand his side the lead. Anirudh Thapa’s strike was the first goal scored by an Indian player in ISL 2020-21.
The 22-year-old from Dehradun had his reasons as well. He has been playing with Chennaiyin FC since 2016, won the ISL title in 2017-18, was named the AIFF Emerging Player twice (in 2017-18 and 2019-20) and had grown into a regular starter for the Indian football team as well.
“People call me young because of my age but, to be honest, I don’t consider myself as young. I want to go beyond that stage where I am (just) a talented youngster,” he said before Chennaiyin’s season-opener on Tuesday.
The Indian football player’s contribution on Tuesday night was not restricted to a goal alone. He grew in confidence and helped Chennaiyin FC boss the midfield as they won the fixture 2-1.
Starting in a deep-lying position in Chennai’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Anirudh Thapa was composed in his approach while breaking down attacks and often was the extra player in their attack that arrived late around the box as an added scoring option. However, what took notice was his ability to withstand pressure from a physically dominating team in Jamshedpur FC.
Owen Coyle hails Anirudh Thapa
While the Chennaiyin FC head coach Csaba Laszlo was all praise for his star midfielder, his opposite number Owen Coyle too lavished praise on the Indian, with whom he’s worked in the past.
“Anirudh Thapa is a wonderful player. He was the best Indian midfielder in the league last season, and I have not seen anything to change my mind yet. I kept encouraging him to get forward. He is a wonderful player and a good lad,” Owen Coyle said in the post-match media briefing.
Thapa’s rise to stardom in the Indian football circles is a result of years of hard work that the youngster has put into improving his game.
Having been scouted by the AIFF Elite Academy -- a development programme of the Indian federation -- in 2012, Thapa was only 14 when he took his first step towards becoming a professional football player.
Though Anirudh Thapa was staying away from his family -- he had joined the famed St. Stephen’s Academy, Chandigarh four years ago - what took him by surprise was the quality of football at the academy.
“The players there were all advanced. I had a good coach at St. Stephen’s but I never really had the quality players around me whom I found at the AIFF Academy to challenge myself,” Anirudh Thapa told Goal.com back then.
“The facilities and coaches were great at the AIFF Academy. It was difficult for me at first because the competition was huge.”
Hard work pays off for Anirudh Thapa
Not moved by the pressure, Thapa chose to put his head down and work on his game in the coming years. The hard work paid off a few years later when Chennaiyin FC signed him in 2016.
With quality coaches to work with, Anirudh Thapa’s development continued at Chennaiyin FC as well. This period also saw him travel to FC Metz, a top-division side in France, for a three-month-long training stint. It’s a phase the Indian believes helped him improve his technical ability.
“We used to train with the ‘B’ team and sometimes with the U-23 teams. It was great to learn from them. The tempo of the game was high. The training we used to do was more technique-oriented. It was more with the ball,” Thapa said.
With an improved understanding of the game and a knack of finding spaces, Anirudh Thapa’s rise continued as he challenged the best in the ISL to make his way into the national team a year ahead of the all-important 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
The Dehradun boy was no different with the Indian football team as well. With the then head coach Stephan Constantine choosing to play him in his preferred role, Anirudh Thapa shone brightly every time he was on the pitch. He also played a vital role in ensuring India made the cut for the continental showpiece after eight years.
His fairytale continued at the UAE event as well. Making his AFC Asian Cup debut in the campaign opener, Anirudh Thapa capped off a memorable evening for India with a cheeky goal as they beat Thailand 4-1. It was India’s first win at the stage since 1964.
“I watched the 2011 (Asian Cup) event (which India played) on TV. I had no idea how to reach there. I just knew that one day that I must play in that tournament. Therefore, it was special in 2019,” Anirudh Thapa said.
“The match against Thailand will always be special as not only did I score but we won. The win came after so many years in an AFC tournament.”
There has been no looking back for Indian youngster ever since. And with a coach willing to give his freedom to venture ahead, Anirudh Thapa seems destined to reach greater heights this season.