Imran Khan: Selling veggies with mother to a Blue Tiger in Saudi Arabia

The winger is another product from the Manipur assembly line, aiming to make his country proud

Imran Khan's journey from humble beginnings to earning a spot in India's national football team is a testament to his perseverance and dedication (photo: AIFF)
Imran Khan's journey from humble beginnings to earning a spot in India's national football team is a testament to his perseverance and dedication (photo: AIFF)

NH Sports Bureau

For Imran Khan, selling vegetables as a teenager with his mother at a remote village in East Manipur to one of the new wingers for India in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers had been quite a journey. And the sturdy Jamshedpur FC player, who caught the eyes of chief coach Igor Stimac in the ongoing edition of Indian Super League (ISL), is enjoying all the attention.

“It’s a great feeling to be a part of this family. It’s a dream-come-true and I'm really happy. The coach and the teammates really support me. I’ve played with many of them before in different clubs. Every moment is fantastic with the national team,’’ the 29-year-old Imran told the AIFF media team from Abha in Saudi Arabia, where they will be taking on Afghanistan in their first leg game in a neutral venue on Thursday (22 March, 12.30 am IST).

Imran Khan (left) training with his teammates in Abha, Saudi Arabia. (photo: AIFF)
Imran Khan (left) training with his teammates in Abha, Saudi Arabia. (photo: AIFF)

A piece of history beckons them in shape of a third round entry as India’s home match against Afghanistan will then be played at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati on 26 March. They are now tied on three points in Group A of the qualifiers along with Kuwait, who are ahead on goal difference. Sunil Chhetri’s men has defeated Kuwait (1-0) in Kuwait City in their opening match of the qualifiers before losing to Qatar (0-3) in Bhubaneswar. Qatar currently lead the group with six points.

‘’Next, I want to make my debut. But most of all, I want to win. These are really important matches for us in the World Cup Qualifiers,’’ Imran continues.

Recalling the moment when he heard the news of him making the elite group, a smiling Imran said: “My brother called me and told me I was selected for the national team. I was really surprised. I thought it was a dream. I was so ecstatic. I had been dreaming of this moment for a long time, for so many years. As a kid, I always wanted to wear the Indian jersey. I was really happy. I couldn't explain in words how I felt at that moment.’’

Imran was raised in Kairang Mayai Leikai, a village in the Imphal East district of Manipur. ‘’Football is a culture there. Kids are always playing on every corner,’’ he says.

“My mother used to sell vegetables on the street. We didn’t even have a cart, so she sold them sitting on the floor. I was around 13 years old at that time and always used to go with her to help her out. That’s how we earned our living. Beside that place, there was a small ground where some kids used to play. My mother asked me if I wanted to join them, and that's how my friendship with the ball began.’’

As someone comfortable on the ball, Imran loved to make his way past the opponents – keeping an attacking mindset. With the kind of performances the 29-year-old has been dishing out for Jamshedpur FC in the ISL this season, many would say it was only a matter of time before he was rewarded with the call-up.

‘’But I don't expect too much in life,’’ the winger says. ‘’I was only focused on doing my best for my club. When as a kid, I always loved to play with the ball at my feet. I didn't have any preferred position or anything like that. I just wanted to have the ball all the time. In terms of what I need to improve, I need to be better without the ball. Football is a team game and I try my best to improve in all aspects and help my teammates.’’

It's not really a surprise that the teammate Imran wants to help most on the pitch is his inspiration and idol Sunil Chhetri. “Yes, I want to score my first goal, but I really want to assist Sunil bhai,’’ he laughs.

‘’I loved to see him score on TV all the time. His mentality is second to none. At such an age, he keeps going and runs more than any of us. I've played against him so many times as an opponent, and now we're on the same team. I want to be the one to provide him with an assist.’’

Indian squad

Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Vishal Kaith. Defenders: Akash Mishra, Mehtab Singh, Rahul Bheke, Nikhil Poojary, Subhasish Bose, Anwar Ali, Amey Ranawade, Jay Gupta. Midfielders: Anirudh Thapa, Brandon Fernandes, Liston Colaco, Mahesh Singh Naorem, Sahal Abdul Samad, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, Deepak Tangri, Lalengmawia Ralte, Imran Khan. Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Manvir Singh, Vikram Partap Singh.

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