CHENNAI: It’s easy to forget how young Anirudh Thapa is when you watch him play. He is already the first midfielder on the team-sheet for both his club and national coach. It did not take Igor Stimac long to recognise that he is the most creative midfielder India have right now — he played the entirety of the first World Cup qualifier against Oman and was only taken off in injury-time against Qatar. At 21, that’s a lot of responsibility!
Yet, when he doesn’t have a ball at his feet, it’s apparent he’s just another fun-loving kid. His Instagram account is filled with pictures of him hiking and fooling around with friends. Ask him about shouldering the weight of expectations and outcome the jokes. “I work out a lot. Especially on the shoulder muscles,” he laughs.
“But honestly, I handle pressure by not taking the pressure,” Thapa says. “It hasn’t been difficult. That’s what gives me strength, motivates me to work harder.”
Thapa has always been someone who stood out — he comes from Dehradun, hardly a football hub, while his game has the kind of intelligence that you normally don’t associate with Indian footballers. But it has been over the past twelve months that he has really grabbed the limelight. Despite a bad season for the team, Thapa cemented himself as Chennaiyin’s best domestic player. In India colours, he scored in both of the team’s big international wins over the period — against Thailand in the Asian Cup and in the King’s Cup. And last week, in the historic draw against Qatar, he was one of the many who marched out of the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha with their reputations enhanced.
“It (the Qatar draw) was a great feeling,” says Thapa. “It wasn’t a coincidence though. Qatar is the Asian champion for a reason. The quality of their gameplay is world-class. But the game against them also woke us up to our potential.”
After getting his breakthrough at Chennaiyin under John Gregory and being introduced to the international scene by Stephen Constantine, Thapa is enjoying working under Stimac, a coach whose tactics arguably works to his strengths. “It’s an honour working with Stimac. He’s very technical with his work. You guys can see the change in us on the field,” he says. “I’ve worked a lot on the little technicalities in my gameplay. I’ve learnt that little movements make a big difference and I’m constantly working on that.
The one downside of being a vital cog at an age when most players get the on-off appearances is that Thapa has been playing non-stop for a while now. After playing all of Chennaiyin’s games in the league last year, he then represented them in the AFC Cup in April and May. From there, he went straight into Stimac’s national camp and he’s been with them since. As soon as India’s qualifier against Bangladesh next month is done, he will rush straight to Chennaiyin’s ISL campaign. “I haven’t really had much time to rest,” he says.“But the teams working behind our recovery make sure we’re never feeling less than a 100 per cent.”