CHENNAI: Ashique Kuruniyan usually doesn't think twice when his fellow Malappuram native and India defender Anas Edathodika calls. After all, Anas has been a mentor to him since the two first met at erstwhile I-League outfit Pune FC — Anas was the established senior pro while Ashique was the academy kid who had just left behind everything he knew for a shot at glory. But on Thursday, Anas wasn't calling to chit-chat. He was calling to let Ashique know that he had just been called up to Stephen Constantine's India camp for the upcoming Intercontinental Cup.
"I did not expect that to happen," the 20-year-old forward says. "I had a strong finish to the season but I missed a lot of matches at the beginning because I was injured. I think, in total, I just played nine matches for FC Pune City in the ISL." In those nine appearances, he managed a goal and an assist. But apparently, that was enough for Constantine to include him among the 30 probables.
Ashique's last eighteen months has been a roller-coaster ride. In late 2016, he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight when it was announced that he would train with La Liga club Villarreal's C team in Spain. Everyone was scrambling to figure out who Ashique was and stories were written on how he dropped out of school in eighth standard and how he worked in a sugarcane shop to help support his family. But once he took the flight to Spain, the drum-rolls stopped and he was left to fend for himself in the most unfamiliar of circumstances. No one spoke English and he was often treated as a novelty act. He was handed the captain's armband in just his second game for his team. Even Ashique knew he wasn't that good. And then came the injury. He tore his hamstring during training and his Spanish sojourn ended in pain and tears. "I wouldn't say that I made it to the national camp because of the Spain stint," Ashique says. "It was beneficial in some areas — my first touch and passing has improved for sure. But the fact is that I was there for three months and it is not possible to improve drastically in that little time. I think most of the credit for this should go to my club FC Pune City and my coach Ranko Popovic."
In Popovic, Ashique found a kindred spirit as he was feeling his way back to full fitness. As the season drew to a close, the Serbian had high praise for Ashique, terming him a player with a very bright future while stressing on how he needed to strengthen up his body. "He was great for me," Ashique says. "He is someone who picks players who impress him in training rather than just going by name or reputation. If you look at Pune City this year, you'll find that a lot of youngsters got chances."
Ashique says his immediate goal is to impress Constantine and make it into the final squad. Standing out in a crowd that includes experienced pros like Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh may not be the easiest task but Ashique is not flinching. He has scaled steeper peaks.