Long before he started scoring goals for fun in the I-League, Jobby Justin thought the Santosh Trophy—a knockout tournament contested by India’s top state associations and government institutions—was the pinnacle of football in the country. That the biggest prize was a winner’s certificate, the biggest cheque a salary from a job gained through the sports quota, and the biggest honour a call-up to the national team. Until the Indian Super League (ISL) grabbed his attention five years ago, Jobby Justin, hero of two Kolkata derbies this season, had no idea what being a professional footballer meant.
Jobby Justin’s is not as much a rags-to-riches story as it is one of an awakening and a rebellion. After a first season in which he scored two league goals in nine appearances, Jobby has returned stronger and faster in the 16 games he has played this season. As of 20 February, his nine goals are the most by an Indian across the ISL and the I-League.
Jobby’s rise to top-level football is a story which began in 2017, when he was spotted in a Kerala Premier League (KPL) match that East Bengal official Alvito D’Cunha was attending to scout an opponent player.
“Jobby was playing for KSEB (Kerala State Electricity Board) but we had gone to scout another player that day—one of his opponents. But Jobby produced a couple of insane skills—forcing me to watch him play two more games on that trip. For a relatively short player, he had the brilliant ability to bring down the ball under control in tight areas. I wish I could explain how entertaining he was to watch," says D’Cunha.
These skills were honed in the Kerala Sevens format—7-a-side games where expression and creativity are the desired virtues. It is his swagger, bravery and penchant for risks that have brought plaudits. All these qualities have come to the fore in the cauldron that is the Kolkata derby—East Bengal against Mohun Bagan. The first derby of this season, in December, saw him pull off an audacious nutmeg on Bagan central defender Eze Kingsley, resulting in the Nigerian pulling him down to get sent off. To be fair, there was no other way to stop Jobby that evening. He then scored the goal to give East Bengal the lead—a scissor kick on the volley from inside the box. The second derby in January saw him create the first goal before scoring the second, rising higher than everyone for a glancing header as East Bengal completed a league double over Bagan for the first time in 15 years.
Jobby was jubilant that night, a blur of dyed hair, bright boots and body ink. His tattoos are, in all probability, a sign of the conflict between his belief and his passion: a rosary on his arm and a football with boots on his torso. His confidence was characterized by the in-your-face celebrations that lasted long after the final whistle—there seemed to be a message for those who doubted him. His doubters were many, including his father, who refused to encourage a career in professional football, and a society that judged him for his streak of youthful showmanship.
Jobby’s love for football began on the beaches of the coastal suburb of Vettucaud in Thiruvananthapuram—an area dominated by the 500-year-old Madre De Deus church. It is said that the missionary St Francis Xavier had once visited the place, which also hosts the annual feast of Christ the King, an event which attracts thousands of devotees every year. A young Jobby was, with his parents and siblings, a regular participant at this event, apart from the weekly mass. But this brought with it certain rules that Jobby simply refused to follow.
“No printed shirts. No hairstyle. No tattoos. These are just some of them. I liked going to church, but I didn’t agree with the regulations," he says. After college, Jobby stopped caring about what others thought of him. “On the pitch, I’m really good. Off it, the impression back home is of a boy who didn’t follow the rules and gave up a government job for football," Jobby says, amused rather than bitter.
Through his childhood and adolescence, his father, Justin Alphonse, was working as a driver in Abu Dhabi. When he returned to Kerala, he turned to fishing. Jobby was 17 then. Alphonse has two other sons—one an engineer, now settled in Dubai, and the other an engineering student. Jobby was the odd one out. However, he had the support of his mother, who was equally headstrong.
“His father wanted him to study well and get a stable job. He believed Jobby won’t achieve anything in sport, so yes, there were problems, but I was confident he will play and he will achieve. So, whenever he had a match, I told his father that Jobby was at tuition class," says Rosy Justin.
Jobby was hardly ever at the tuition class. Despite financial troubles, he took up the sport formally at coaching camps in summer. He wanted to emulate other players who were being selected for India’s junior teams. Extremely competitive, he started making his presence felt at the school and university levels, and finally made it to the Kerala Santosh Trophy team in 2017. Coming into the tournament on the back of a year’s rehab after a knee injury, Jobby scored five goals in four games before Kerala crashed out in the semi-finals. By then, he had already secured a job at KSEB after trials with them, and this led to his participation in the KPL. The government job part of his mission was complete, but, as his WhatsApp status says, “Some birds aren’t meant to be caged…want to fly high."
East Bengal got in touch with him through former India captain I.M. Vijayan before offering a two-year contract to the wingback-turned-striker. Even when he signed, Jobby thought he was “going to Kolkata to figure out how professional football worked".
Such has been Jobby’s season that the India team snub for last month’s Asia Cup in the UAE didn’t go down too well with fans and pundits. Given the pace, skill and willingness to run that Jobby possesses—along with the fact that he has started every match this season for one of the top sides in Indian football—it was surprising that he didn’t get an India call-up.
Jobby’s response is unusually stoic. “Maybe the coach (Stephen Constantine, who resigned after India’s group stage exit in the Asia Cup) thought that bringing me into a settled group may disrupt things. It may have nothing to do with my performances. So for me, it doesn’t matter that a new coach is coming, I will continue to do what I do," he says.
Jobby signed up with a football agency (Inventive Sports) last year, a necessity in today’s highly competitive business of football, where contracts can have layers of clauses not easily decoded. Other clubs are now making a beeline for the striker’s signature as his contract with East Bengal runs out at the end of the season in early March. The 25-year-old, who currently cycles to training and hasn’t bought a PlayStation because he can’t spare the money, could be on the verge of a money-spinning contract, either at a new club or even at East Bengal. The last few years in Indian football have seen footballers of Jobby’s quality earn anywhere from ₹50 lakh to ₹1.5 crore per year.
“I have come here after a great struggle—earning match-by-match in the Sevens to playing for East Bengal. And I want to realize my dreams. I want to secure my future, I want to buy cars, and, while I want to play, money will surely be on my mind because of the hardships I’ve faced," he says.
But the real achievement lies in him convincing his father of his abilities. Their strained relationship has softened over the past year or so—Jobby understands his father’s attitude stemmed more from worry than opposition to the sport. In fact, it was Alphonse who took him to a football stadium for the first time—but poor results in exams turned him against a purely footballing career.
Things have changed. “We talk on the phone but, obviously, since I was against his football, that has affected the relationship," says Alphonse. “But I watch him on television now. His pictures are in the newspaper and I tell all my friends about him. I am very proud of him. When he chose to go to Kolkata, I told him it was a mistake—especially giving up a government job which is a guarantee for life—but Jobby told me that he will prove me wrong. Today, I am proud that Jobby has proved me wrong."