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They found four letters in his pocket – one to his wife, one to AIFF president, two to his office colleagues. Four letters. Four suicide notes. Indian Football has had its fair share of footballers who didn’t get proper accolades in their lives yet none of them ended their lives as tragically as VP Sathyan. Indian football fans who watched the “Iron Wall” in his prime could have never imagined such a sad demise of the hard tackling defender cum midfielder.
Vatta Parambath Sathyan was born on 29th April, 1965 in Kerala. Like a lot of youngsters in the football crazy state, he too started playing at an early age. Sathyan was first spotted as a rising youngster while playing in Free Football Coaching Centre. He started his career with Spirited Youth club in 1982 and moved to Lucky Stars Club following year. He was a disciplined footballer and took his practice very seriously. One of his early coaches K. Kunhiraman remembered him as someone who would practice alone even when others had left the field. His big break came in 1984, when he joined Kerala Police. The Institutional side from Kerala would eventually turn into one of the big forces of Indian football – with Sathyan as a lynchpin.
Helping Kerala Reach To The Top Spot In Indian Football
Indian Football was ruled by teams from Kerala in early 1990s. Kerala Police won back to back Federation Cup titles in 1989-1990 and 1990-1991 season. The Police team became the first club from Southern India to capture the mantle of Indian champions in two consecutive seasons. Kerala Police contained players who would eventually become superstars in Indian football – Saraf Ali, Pappachan, IM Vijayan and last but not the least, VP Sathyan.
VP started his career as a central defender but later moved up to play the role of a central midfielder. Two men deserve credit for Sathyan’s change of position. PK Banerjee, the wily tactician who understood that VP could be even more effective as blocker in midfield. Sudip Chatterjee, the man who selflessly sacrificed his own position though he was a senior player. Sathyan was a perfect fit to be a defensive midfielder. Being a natural defender he was adept in tackles. He rarely lost possession, was also a good passer and was especially capable in set-pieces and long rangers.
He moved to Kolkata in early 1990s and played for two seasons. His time in Mohammedan SC was forgettable but he came to his elements at Mohun Bagan. His style of play impressed then Bagan coach Sayeed Nayeemuddin, who always liked players with good work rate. The spectators loved his never say die attitude, leadership abilities and above all, his ever smiling demeanor. He also played a crucial part behind bringing IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri to Kolkata. Vijayan was initially wary of coming to the City of Joy but Sathyan convinced him by saying that in order to gain stardom in Indian football one had to play in Kolkata.
During his peak years VP got offers to play in Qatar as well as Czechoslovakia, he too made the common mistake of other Indian footballers and decided to play it safe by not going abroad. After his brief but memorable stint in Mohun Bagan Sathyan moved back to Kerala Police and eventually joined Indian Bank. He hung up his boots while playing at the Chennai based club, later taking over as coach for the same team.
After retirement Sathyan could have taken over a lucrative post in Kerala Police but instead chose to relocate to Chennai so that he could still remain close to the game. He took over as coach of Indian Bank and set his sights on taking the team to top division of the National Football League. In early 2000s he attended two coaching courses – A FIFA affiliated course in Bhutan and an AFC affiliated course in Goa. During his course in Bhutan, Sathyan came in contact with Erich Rutemoller, assistant to Rudi Voller during 2002 World Cup and picked up valuable tips from the German. He was an assistant to English coach Stephen Constantine when India toured South Korea in 2002.
The lessons he learnt helped him immensely as Indian Bank unexpectedly qualified to the first division of National Football League, the first and only team from Chennai to do this. Indian Bank lost just one match in the final qualifying round winning five out of eight games. They upset the likes of Air India, SBT- clubs with experience of playing in NFL.
Under his tutelage Indian Bank managed to stay up in their first season and got creditable results like a 3-1 win over Dempo and a 3-3 draw against eventual champions East Bengal (despite leading 3-1 at one point). Sathyan and his team’s luck ran out the following season as Indian Bank performed dismally and got relegated. The Bankmen were hit hard by absence of three Sri Lankan players, including their top scorer from previous season, Jayasuriya for most of their league campaign. Indian Bank could muster only 8 points from 22 matches in one of the most abject displays in the history of NFL. Sathyan joined AIFF Selection Committee in 2004.
Shining For The National Team
VP Sathyan achieved a lot of success and silverware in his club career. However, his consistent performances for Indian team made him popular across the country.
His first splendid performance for India came rather unexpectedly. Before 1985 SAFF Games the Indian team was struggling with defensive players – Subrata Bhattacharya was suspended, while Manoranjan Bhattacharya was out injured. PK gambled by moving Sathyan up as a defensive midfielder and the Kerala Police player didn’t disappoint him. Sathyan’s combination with Saraf Ali and Mastan became one of the talking points of India’s performance that year. He was just 19 and playing his first big tournament for India, which made his performance all the more notable.
VP was brilliant for the national team during the 1986 Merdeka Tournament. India began with a 3-0 loss against Thailand and faced off against South Korea in a do-or-die match. Sathyan was outstanding in that memorable match with South Korea. Krishanu Dey scored two goals while VP scored a match-winning long-ranger from 40 yards out to earn a 4-3 win. Sathyan was unbeatable against a strong Czechoslovakia side in the semi-final of the same tournament. Led by him in defence India held the former European champions at bay for 116 minutes before succumbing to a late goal.
VP Sathyan’s leadership skills were rewarded when he was selected to don the skipper’s arm band in early 1990s. In total he captained India for 10 matches and led the team to a gold medal in 1995 SAFF Games. In 1993 Nehru Cup Indian coach excluded all players from Kolkata because they didn’t join the Chennai camp on time. Sathyan led a team with inexperienced players, some of whom were playing their first big tournament. His leadership kills shone once again as India played out 0-0, 2-2 draws with Cameroon (Sathyan himself scored a goal) and another 0-0 draw with Finland. Sathyan was awarded with the AIFF Best Player of the Year award in 1995.
In 1994 world cup qualifiers Sathyan scored one of the most important goals of his career as India held Lebanon to a 2-2 draw at Beirut. Sadly, he also received some shoddy treatment from some of the coaches. In 1991 SAFF Games Sathyan was chosen as the captain but coach Josef Geli gave the armband to Satyajit Chatterjee as captain once the team reached Colombo. Sathyan was further insulted as he was dropped from the starting XI altogether. Yet, the soft spoken footballer didn’t complain or whine and accepted the decision sportingly.
Till retirement, Sathyan played 80 matches for the national team and was part of the team for Nehru Cup, SAFF Games, World Cup qualifiers squads. He also participated in 15 editions of Santosh Trophy.
VP Sathyan committed suicide on 18th July, 2006. He threw himself in front of a Tambaram bound train at 11:15 AM in a crowded railway station in Pallavaram, Chennai. He died an instant death. He was still the coach of Indian Bank as well as a National Selector when he passed away. Jayashankar Mennon, an office colleague identified his dead body amidst stunned silence. From his suicide notes, it was evident that Sathyan had fallen into tough times financially and subsequent depression led to his suicide.
Sathyan’s death was met with universal shock and dismay. The soft spoken footballer was admired by his peers. His co-players and friends lamented the fact that introvert Sathyan never told anyone of his problems.
Sathyan’s body was flown from Chennai to Kochi and a host of sports personalities paid their last respect. The likes of PT Usha and Saini Wilson were present along his team mate and close ally IM Vijayan. The usually emotional Vijayan couldn’t control himself at the sight of Sathyan’s dead body – a man who had been like an elder brother to him. His other co-players like Jo Paul Ancheri and Pappachan were also present.
Sadly, VP Sathyan didn’t receive the accolades he deserved, both before and after his death. He was not considered for the Arjuna Award even though Baichung Bhutia, many years junior to him, got his due.
Few days back the 5th anniversary of his tragic death passed almost unnoticed. His wife Anitha, had this to say – “He had led the Indian team in several matches and was a first eleven player for about 12 years. But so far there is no academy or even a tournament in his name; they seem to have forgotten that such a person even existed.”
Sportspersons in India are treated with utter callousness by administrators who rarely perform their duties. Sad cases like those of VP Sathyan should be prevented at all costs and it must be ensured that unfortunate events like these don’t take place in future. Till that time VP will occupy the hearts of his fans as one of the most prominent figures in the Golden age of Kerala football.