MUMBAI: Dressed in a dapper dark blue jacket with a stark white lining, Nishu Kumar shies away from making eye-contact and keeps the answers short. The glitzy lights of the Indian Super League are blinding for the 20-year-old from Muzzafarnagar – a town in Uttar Pradesh where cricket still rules open spaces and bagging a government job is the height of professional ambition.
“It is a cricket crazy town; the people there are still not as knowledgeable about football,” said Kumar during a media interaction in Mumbai on Friday.
“My father is a government employee, and even though my parents don’t talk about it anymore, everyone in the neighbourhood and their friends keep telling me to take up a government job.”
Rather, he is now tasked with the much more glamorous job of standing guard at left-back for Bengaluru FC. With the team now part of the Indian Super League, Kumar is all set to make his debut in the prime-time tournament.
“We used to watch it from the outside and always wanted to play in the ISL. It will be good to play in front of such big crowds,” he says.
For a player who has climbed the various rungs of Indian football at such a hectic pace, Kumar had started playing football as a distraction from studies and only with the aim of making it to the Lucknow Sports College. Though cricket is the favoured sport of the region, he would play football on a dusty field across his house.
“For 2-3 months we would play football,” says Kumar. “Some of the boys playing with us were already in the hostel in Lucknow Sports College, and that’s where I wanted to go. Neighbours would ask why I was playing all day rather than studying; sometimes my parents also agreed with it, but I thought football could be a way of getting into the hostel.” Kumar won a spot at the sports hostel and then shifted to the Chandigarh Football Academy. From there, he was picked up for the AIFF Elite Academy and played for India at the under-17 and Under-19 level.
It was at the AIFF Academy that he made the switch from being a striker to centre-back, before settling into the left-back spot. Though he is not the tallest of defenders (5’8), the player is not shy about going shoulder to shoulder with the best in the business in India.
“When I was picked for the Academy, in 2013, that’s when I actually thought I could be a professional football player,” he says. One of the most promising players in the programme, Kumar was snapped up by Bengaluru FC, then coached by Ashley Westwood, in 2015. Playing side-by-side with John Johnson, one of the toughest defenders in Indian football, and in the same team as Sunil Chhetri has motivated him to reach greater heights.
“The next goal is getting into the Indian national team,” says Kumar shyly, the pressure of getting a government job happily slinking into distant memory. He is not a belligerent rebel, but he is a rebel nonetheless.