On Thursday, Bikash Yumnam became the first Indian to make The Guardian's 'Next Generation' list - a selection of the best young footballers on the planet, published annually by the English newspaper. The list, run from 2014, has featured some of the most exciting talent in world football, and Yumnam now finds himself in elite company.
The 17-year old centre-back first hit international spotlight about five weeks ago through a 40-second Instagram clip, filmed during last season's I-League, showcasing a rather unique talent of his: long throws.
The video shows Yumnam, playing for Indian Arrows, taking a throw-in against Mohun Bagan. He takes a small run-up and hurls a mammoth long throw into Bagan's penalty box. The chance wasn't converted, but Yumnam's skill certainly got some attention.
Among those who commented on the video was Liverpool's [now famous] throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark. With 14 of Liverpool's 85 goals in their title winning 2019-20 season coming by way of throw-ins, Gronnemark knows a good thing when he sees it, and he certainly thought favourably of Yumnam. "A good example of the Long throw-in. It's a bit too high... but good quality," Gronnemark commented below the video.
"(That's) the first time he got international exposure," says Yumnam's agent Venkat. Now, that recognition has picked up pace with the inclusion into the 'Next Generation' list.
Bikash is a long way from matching the success of some of the more famous players to grace the list, but he has already come a ways. He grew up in the town of Lilong Chajing in the Imphal West district of Manipur. He started playing early, courtesy a football-fanatic father but moved out of the state for better prospects. "I always wanted to leave Manipur because there wasn't much infrastructure for football back home. I already had a friend who was in Minerva Academy and he encouraged me to take part in the trials," he says.
At the Chandigarh-based academy, run by Ranjit Bajaj, there was no shortage of motivation for the then 13-year-old. "At the academy, there are so many players who have represented India at the U-17 World Cup like Amarjit Singh, Jeakson Singh, and Nongdamba Naorem. There's a lot of motivation to do well myself," he says.
Yumnam's position of choice has always been centre back. "I was a little big when I was younger. I didn't like to run that much, so I became a centre back," he says. Bajaj rates him highly. "I felt that Bikash is not only very calm with the ball but very tough in tackling. He has a brilliant shot and a great header to go along with the throw-in," he says.
The throw-in of course, is Yumnam's USP. It has been built over four years with consistent training. "Every day after the team finished, he would train for another half an hour just on that. We worked on his upper body strength. We even made him work with a throwing coach. His throwing is so good that anywhere in the opposition half is like a corner for me. He could get the ball into the danger from the mid-line!" says Bajaj.
Yumnam's abilities have made him an integral part of the Indian age group teams. He was one of the standouts for India at the 2018 U-18 Asian Championships where his consistency in the back line was considered critical in India maintaining a clean sheet in the group stage and reaching the quarterfinals of the competition.
He's tipped to one day translate his age group performances to the senior stage and that's what Yumnam hopes for himself too. "I hope I can play many years and become a regular member of the team," he says.
For the moment, though, he's willing to put in the hard yards at the level. Having played for the Arrows on loan last season, Yumnam is expected to head back to I-League side Punjab FC this time around. While it might not be the same as India's top division the ISL, both Bajaj and agent Venkat see this as an opportunity to maximise game time. That's what Yumnam wants too.
"The main priority for me is to play as much as possible and learn as much as I can," he says. And while he's aware that expectations on him might grow after his inclusion in the list, Yumnam says he will avoid trying to take pressure on himself. "I'm both happy and surprised but I'm also realistic. I'm still at the start of my career. There's still a very long way for me to go. They aren't saying I've reached the top level, they only say I have the potential to get to the top level," he says.