“When I was going through those moments, I wondered, why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?”
Sivasakthi Narayanan is talking about a phase in his life when his father had just passed away, he lived away from his mother at a sports hostel, didn’t go home because he couldn’t afford to pay for the journey, and slogged it out in local five-a-side football matches so that he could make ends meet with the prize money earned.
He was 14 years old back then; smothered by life and smitten by football. Siva, as he’s fondly called, remembers sitting in front of a TV at his hostel, watching his favourite Indian stars in action. “Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan, Gurpreet Sandhu…” he rattles off the names. “I wanted to be like them.”
At that point, it felt like a distant dream. Today, as the 21-year-old Bengaluru FC player prepares for the biggest match of his young career, the Indian Super League final against ATK Mohun Bagan in Madgaon on Saturday – he not only shares the dressing room with these stalwarts but has also carved out his own space in a star-studded line-up, so much so that the spotlight will be on Siva as much as the likes of Chhetri and Sandhu.
Much of the hype around Siva is because he’s emerged as a breakout talent this season in a position where few Indians do well – forward. For what seems like time immemorial, Indian football has been wrestling with the ‘who-after-Chhetri’ question. The country’s highest goal-scorer is in the twilight of his career and with the Asian Cup on the horizon, the national team has been yearning for a potent striker.
Bengaluru FC coach Simon Grayson, a former manager of Leeds United who now play in the English Premier League, says Siva has all the ingredients to succeed. “He has good abilities, fantastic work rate, knows where the back of the net is, but is also very humble and wants to keep improving all the time,” the Englishman says. “It’s a testament to the lad himself that he’s got consistent performances over the last 10-12 games, which has led to national recognition and (selection in the) national squad, which is fantastic for the boy.”
It is still too early to anoint Siva, who has earned his maiden India call-up for the international friendlies against Myanmar and Kyrgyz Republic later this month, as Chhetri’s heir apparent. But he has shown promise. In his first full domestic season, Siva has emerged as the third-highest goal scorer among Indians (6 in 20 games) but has the most among the forwards, given the other two – Mumbai City duo Lallianzuala Chhangte (10) and Bipin Singh (7) – are both wingers.
This is in addition to the five he netted in the Durand Cup, taking his tally into double digits for this season – a rarity for an Indian striker. “The season has exceeded my expectations at every level,” Siva says.
There is a hint of astonishment in the voice of the boy from Kandanur, a small Tamil Nadu village that has a rich tradition of seven-a-side football games. Before he set the lush fields on fire with his blistering pace, Siva put the hard yards on Kandanur’s mud grounds. “I grew up watching those matches; that’s how I got my first taste of football,” Siva says. “I wasn’t good at studies, so I tried to make a career in football.”
It was his elder brother Sivasubramanian, though, who first got noticed. And in Siva’s case, it was a tantrum more than talent that earned him his first break.
At one of the seven-a-side tournaments in their village, the brothers saw Noble Football Academy, run by former India international Raman Vijayan, in action. “My brother got interested and went for the academy’s selection trials, where he got picked. The academy also has its own sports hostel so my parents and I went to enrol him there,” Siva says.
When the time came to say goodbye, the prospect of being separated from his brother hit him and the young Siva, who is deeply attached to his elder sibling, threw a fit. “I started crying and was adamant about not leaving my brother. I calmed down only after Raman Vijayan’s brother intervened and told my parents they could leave me at the hostel… they promised to take care of my studies, food… everything. Eventually, my parents agreed.”
A year after he joined the academy, Siva’s father passed away, which sent his family into a spiral of poverty and debt. His mother, Muthulaxmi, had to take up odd jobs and at the academy, Sivashakthi and Sivasubramanian began to hunt for matches and tournaments where they could make a quick buck to support the family.
“It was very tough to focus on football. At the sports hostel, they played five-a-side tournaments and there were small rewards for being the man of the match, Rs 500 or 1,000. My brother and I tried to make ends meet with that money. We didn’t go home because we couldn’t afford to spend on the journey. We knew our mother was struggling but we understood that these struggles are for a reason,” Siva says, adding that Vijayan – who he considers a ‘father figure’ – chipped in with financial help.
Knowing that football was his only way out, the slightly-framed Siva started to make rapid strides with his speed, dribbling skills and keen sense of positioning. After he emerged as the top scorer in the under-18 elite league in 2018, he was on the radar of India’s top clubs and former ISL and I-League champions Bengaluru FC offered him a contract.
“From my first salary, I repaid all the loans my mother had to take to keep the family afloat. And then, I got her a nice dress,” Siva says. “During our days of struggle, I wondered what we did to have these kinds of situations facing us. But having hustled through them and come so far, I know everything happens for a reason and often, it turns out to be more good than bad.”