Jeakson Singh and a goal to remember
Fresh from a defeat against the US in their first match of the U-17 World Cup, the Indian boys were up against Colombia on the warm 9 October evening.
Minutes before half-time, midfielder Rahul Kannoly controlled a pass on his chest and struck a half-volley that rattled the crossbar. Indian fans inside Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium thought the historic goal had arrived, only to be left disappointed.
A few yards away from the box, Thounaojam Jeakson Singh, wearing No.15 on a sweat-soaked Indian blue jersey, slapped the grass with his hands in exasperation as they missed the chance to take a precious lead against the Colombians.
But in the 82nd minute, when India won a corner, Jeakson did not miss the opportunity. He rose the highest inside a crowded penalty box to plant a firm header into the Colombian net. India had got their first goal in a Fifa tournament and it was a 17-year-old from Manipur who had made it happen. Back home in Manipur, his father, Thounaojam Deben Singh, a former footballer himself, must have punched the air in delight.
“I started playing because of my papa. During his days as a player, he couldn’t play with much freedom, so I wanted to fulfil his dream,” says Jeakson, who is playing for the Indian Arrows on loan from Minerva Punjab FC in the ongoing I-League. “That’s how I started playing from a small ground in my village. I also drew inspiration from my brother. My father got me my first pair of studs.”
After training under his father for four years, Jeakson was sent to the Chandigarh Football Academy in 2010. The midfielder trained there for five years before joining Minerva in December 2015, staying with it for two years.
It is no surprise that Jeakson’s favourite players are two of the most famous midfielders around: Nemanja Matic of Manchester United and FC Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets. One of the coaches at the Chandigarh Football Academy had suggested Jeakson mould himself as a defensive midfielder owing to his big frame. At 17, he stands at 6ft, 2 inches. “I didn’t know much about the responsibilities of a midfielder, but I learnt more after joining Minerva. That’s when I started focusing more on the midfield role,” says Jeakson, who is a fan of both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
Training is never easy, even at his age. At the academy, a normal day starts at 4.30am for individual training. That is followed by training sessions with the coaches. The Indian team, Jeakson says, has a doctor to watch over player fitness and diet.
When Jeakson scored against Colombia, there was hope, inside the stadium and across the country, that this could be the turning point for India in the tournament. The celebrations, however, were short-lived. Colombia regained their lead moments later. That old saying in football—you are at your weakest when you have just scored—came true once again.
Jeakson says the coach, Luís Norton De Matos, told the team after the match that that moment was a big lesson for all of them. “He told us that now we know the level of football in a Fifa World Cup. He made us believe we can play fearlessly. We have the talent, we were just lacking in experience,” he says. “I really think we could have defeated Colombia...we lost our focus after scoring.”
Back home, Jeakson is studying through open school. “I have missed some exams but I can’t go easy on the studying bit,” he says. The most important thing for a football player, however, is to get enough chances to play and the 17-year-old is open to playing for any club where he gets more chances.
“That (the World Cup) was the first time I was playing in front of so many fans. There was a little bit of pressure. You are playing the World Cup, at home. But we knew they were there to support us,” says Jeakson, adding that he had jumped early and almost made a mess of the header.
“I was so excited looking at the fans who were shouting ‘India, India’ inside the stadium after I scored, I actually envisioned that goal before the World Cup. It happened just the same way that day,” he says.
His goal remains memorable, and will for a long time to come.