The Kannur kid who dreamed big

Rapid Fire: CK Vineeth (1:40)

Bengaluru FC striker Vineeth takes on some quick questions on his likes, dislikes, memories and his name. (1:40)

In Kerala, many believe that CK Vineeth can be the next IM Vijayan.

Vineeth himself, though, responds to such claims in Malayalam with a grin: "Athu korachu overa."

The literal translation is "That's a little bit over the top," but the way Vineeth says it, it's more like "Are you kidding me?"

Vineeth has come a long way since his arrival at Bengaluru FC in 2014. Following the departures of Sean Rooney and Robin Singh last year, Vineeth has formed a formidable strike partnership with Sunil Chhetri.

Bengaluru are now on the verge of doing something special in the AFC Cup - an annual competition between domestic clubs run by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Vineeth's solitary goal over two legs against Tampines Rovers of Singapore took his team past the quarterfinals. Now, having secured a precious 1-1 away draw against Malaysian club Johor Darul Ta'zim, Bengaluru can script history and reach the final if they keep a clean sheet at home on October 19.

In addition to his exploits with Bengaluru, Vineeth is also somewhat of a cult hero for his home state Kerala.

Vineeth's career is no doubt on the rise, but there was a moment, three years ago, when he contemplated quitting football altogether.

His football journey started like any other average Indian's - good player at school, even better one at college, and finally addressing the "can I make it" question.

While many fall short on that last hurdle, Vineeth never gave up, even when his family was reluctant to give him the thumbs up to embark on a footballing career. Growing up in Kannur, football was Vineeth's diversion, and he was not going to let it go.

"We had a small ground in school," Vineeth remembers. "Not everyone could play cricket, but for football you just need to put two stones here and two on the other side. Sometimes, even if people walk in the middle it wouldn't be much of a problem.

"But for cricket, it created a disturbance, so I used to play more football. People used to say that I played well (laughs). Then, after 10th, I got selected for the SAI selection camp in Kasargod and that was my first real coaching camp."

Vineeth only played during the Physical Training class - an hour dedicated to sporting activities after the usual humdrum of physics, chemistry and mathematics.

Studying in Navodaya, a boarding school, there was a timetable to be followed. And so, young Vineeth had to wait for his classes to end before heading to the field.

Vineeth's raw talent turned into something fruitful when he returned to his home town, Kannur, for college. That was where he went back to being himself - mischievous.

Vineeth never focused, failed subjects, cheated in exams and skipped classes. He did all of that for just one reason - he simply wanted to play football all the time.

He kept improving his game, and eventually, Vineeth started his youth career with stints at Chennai Customs and later, the Kerala State Electricity Board.

Vineeth's two main attributes - his pace and work ethic - did not go unnoticed among coaches, and earned him a call-up with the then I-League team Viva Kerala (renamed later as Chirag United Club Kerala) in 2010. Just like that, Vineeth's senior career in football had begun. His debut match, however, was one to forget.

"The first year I didn't play that much. I played, but my first season was the most difficult season of all. I made my debut in Kannur in the first year but they substituted me after 10 minutes. I still don't know why they did that."

Vineeth admits that it was the most disappointing phase of his career.

The Indian national team

After two years at Viva Kerala, Vineeth signed for Prayag United (renamed as United Sports Club) in Kolkata . This time, he was all smiles, as he scored on his debut and ended up as the leading Indian goal-scorer in his first year.

Everything changed after that.

Wim Koevermans, who was the Indian national team's coach at that time, picked Vineeth in the 16-member squad for a friendly against Palestine. The match was going to be held at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Kochi, in Vineeth's home state.

Stuff of dreams? Not in Vineeth's case. This was the phase of his career when Vineeth thought of quitting football. Forever.

"Two days before I got the news, I was in Kolkata. In the evening, I got a call from home saying that my dad was in the hospital after being in an accident.

"I took the next flight in the morning and after a lot crying and forcing, I left for Kerala. Dad had a bad fall during the construction work that was going on in our house at that moment. There was nothing serious, but when I got the call I didn't feel like staying in Kolkata. I'm the most closest to my dad. After dad it's everyone else.

"Later in the night, I heard my dad screaming in pain. He was not getting sleep. I stepped outside the house. I called Prayag and I said 'I am done playing football. I am not coming back.' Next morning, I told mom and everyone that I was not going back.

"Then, I get the call that I'm selected for the national team. The phone call came when my dad was still in the hospital. My dad told me, 'Take the next flight and go'. Even though it is the most desired thing any footballer would want, I did not feel anything at that moment."

Vineeth misses home. His parents are still scared of what might happen to his career. What's next after football? What will his income stream be like after he retires?

They are worried, but will never force him to quit playing. In fact, Vineeth says there are many talented footballers in Kerala who are stuck in the vicious cycle of performing routine jobs.

India were losing 4-2 to a Palestine side that had just two of their senior players in the starting XI on the day he was going to make his International debut. After 84 minutes, Vineeth was still an unused substitute. His big moment came in the 85th, when Koevermans decided to replace the goal scorer on the night, Clifford Miranda, with him.

"We were losing so it was not compulsory to bring me on and I think it was his good heart of Koevermans to give me my debut at my home state. That was a different feeling. Playing it front of the fans in Kerala is a different feeling."

Thankfully, Vineeth did not quit football. He went to Pune next to play against Air India in the league, and scored a hat-trick. He says that is how he celebrated his national team call-up.

Bengaluru FC

At the end of his first season with Prayag, a new club in Indian football was born - Bengaluru FC. They hired an English manager in Ashley Westwood, signed good, affordable Indian and foreign talent, and all of a sudden, Indian football witnessed the rise of a new powerhouse.

Bengaluru changed the way a club in India is run. Great publicity and smart marketing got them huge crowds. Match-day programs for the fans caught the eye, and Westwood instilled a winning mentality in the team. Bengaluru soon started making plenty of noise. They topped the table in January 2014, and during that transfer window, Vineeth was signed.

"He is a player we have been tracking for a while now and someone who had a good last season in the I-League. Hopefully, with our methods and standards, we will improve him as an individual and get him back in the national squad," Westwood later said.

However, Vineeth's decision to come to Bengaluru was not because of Westwood or for footballing reasons. Again, at the crucial moment of making a decision, Vineeth thought of family first.

"I had two offers, one was from Pune FC (now defunct) and the other from Bengaluru FC. Because Bangalore was closer to home, I choose this. But after coming here I have realised that this was one of the best decisions I have ever taken.

"The kind of facilities or the kind of comfort that we get, I haven't seen that in any other club in the country. Regardless of how big a club this is and the huge fan support, the amount of support the management gives, the amount of facilities they provide our players there isn't a club that do that.

"Not a single player will come here and say things are not good here. The players who go out of the club don't say 'This club is bad or you can't play at this club'. Everything is taken care of. Bengaluru FC has only made my quality increase, never decrease."

Bengaluru won the league in 2014, becoming the first Indian club to do so in their debut season. Vineeth was a part of that group, but he felt as if he was reaping the benefits of others' hard work. He did not feel very joyous, but was content at where he was.

Next season, in his first full year at the club, Bengaluru lost the league on the final day of the season, in the 87th minute.

"We were sad that we lost the league, but we knew that we will take the trophy back. We had a banner in the ground that read 'We will take back what is rightfully ours'. Next season we took revenge by winning the league and the Federation Cup. It was not fully satisfying, but it did feel good."

Vineeth says Bengaluru have groomed their players to go to the highest possible level, regardless of the opponents or tournament. Westwood had a huge role in bringing that mentality, according to Vineeth.

"From all the coaches I have worked under, Ashley Westwood comes in the first or the second position. I used to play as a winger, but he told me that I can play as a striker. Almost in all games he played me as a striker. He knows how to use the players' qualities effectively. Only he knew how to use my speed and my qualities to good use.

"It's not all of sudden at BFC. I will not say that we planned to reach here (AFC Cup semi-finals), but we work hard in any tournament, and our aim has always been to go to the maximum level in any tournament.

"Knowing that no Indian team has reached the final of the AFC Cup, we feel like creating that kind of history. It will also improve Indian football. We are confident, but we have to execute it on the ground."

The future

Vineeth, at 29, is in the transitional phase of Indian football in the country. Things have not been better for an Indian footballer, but the question still lingers. What next? If you're not a good writer or broacaster, what will you do? Vineeth is unsure about his future plans, but he has given it a thought.

"A footballer's career extends to up to 35 years, max. People say we make a lot of money, but what people don't understand is that we have to spend a lot too. That's why a footballer is also told to have a job.

"After your career is over, we need to have some stream of revenue. Life has to move forward right? I don't know what will happen after my career.

"Actually, I still have my job in Trivandrum. I am on leave now. It's a government job. I work as an auditor in the accountant general's office. But to be frank, I don't know what is going on there."