Rajasthan United head coach Pushpender Kundu had just seen his team fight back twice from a goal down against the mighty ATK Mohun Bagan in their opening Durand Cup fixture at the Salt Lake Stadium on 20 August. At 2-2, with less than 20 minutes to play, he approached 17-year-old Nikum Gyamar, who was warming up with the other substitutes, and asked him, “Beta, jaayega (son, are you ready to go in)?”
Not only did Gyamar get on the pitch, but with seconds left, he arrowed into the opposition box, opened his body up and diverted a perfect first-time finish to win the game for his team in injury time. After a couple of seconds of complete disbelief, he whipped his jersey off and ran towards the corner flag before being engulfed by his teammates.
That image of joyous emotional outpouring is one of the reasons why we love the magic of the Durand Cup. It ended Rajasthan United 3-2 ATK Mohun Bagan. For context, the Mariners have won 16 Durand Cup titles, Rajasthan were playing their debut match in at the tournament. Gyamar became the headliner in the club’s signature victory in their short history. The result would eventually knock the Kolkata side out of the tournament due to the head-to-head group stage tie-breaker.
Before the big gamble, Kundu and his staff had to battle doubts of whether Gyamar was too young for a game like this. “For a club like us, 2-2 at full-time would also mean a big deal. But I thought if I took chance, it could either backfire, or we could make history. So I put on a player who had no fear of opposition; I told him not to think who he was playing against, to play like he would with his friends back home,” says the 42-year-old A-License holding coach.
Gyamar would go on to score a wonderful curled effort with his weaker left foot in the next match against another ISL (Indian Super League) side Mumbai City FC, before setting up an all-important goal against Indian Navy with a perfectly weighted through ball which took Rajasthan into the quarter-finals of the Durand Cup. Two goals and an assist for the teenager has sent his stock soaring in the football community.
Gyamar’s first memories of playing football are from his hometown of Naharlagun, Arunachal Pradesh. “There was a small ground at my school where we would play barefoot and I don’t even know if it was a football or a volleyball we were playing with. Then one day I played with my dad’s football shoes and it felt amazing even though they were oversized. My uncle saw my enthusiasm for football and bought me my first pair of studs on my birthday when I was 12,” says Gyamar. It’s hard to believe that was less than six years ago. He turns 18 in October.
Gyamar’s first taste of competitive football was playing for the Under-13 side of his school—Lekhi Public School—in a state organised tournament from which the winners would represent the state. Lekhi won, and Gyamar travelled outside his state for the first time, to play in Assam. The Arunachal team lost the first game and came back home, but the next few years would see Gyamar get picked for the state’s junior teams regularly. Before covid-19 struck, Gyamar had trials at ISL side NorthEast United, but didn’t make the cut. After lockdown rules were relaxed, he impressed Rajasthan United with a set of brilliant performances in the B.C. Roy Trophy. With a clutch of certificates and commendations, Gyamar was initially offered a scholarship for Rajasthan United’s residential academy. They liked him so much that he was fast-tracked to the first team and given a four-year contract.
Gyamar became the first player from his state to play in the I-League Qualifiers on 20 October 2021, doing so just a few days shy of 17. Rajasthan won the qualifiers and Gyamar played 14 times in the I-League. “He is fearless, and always willing to learn. There is no hesitancy despite moving to a different state. He is one of those players who has to be allowed to express himself. Every time I brought him on, I avoided giving him defensive duties because that would destroy his youthful creativity and instinct,” says Kundu.
Despite his age, Gyamar reads the game well, a fact that he coyly admits. “But there is so much more to learn. Something as basic as my shooting power, decision making, and speed, which I need to keep working on, because I suddenly got fast in the last couple of years,” he says. According to Kundu, Gyamar’s best position is playing behind the striker, but he has also been used on the wings. “He has this burst of acceleration which makes him so dangerous,” says the coach. Then there is the issue of fitness and discipline, which Gyamar says he is working on, including the giving up of cold fizzy drinks, something he says he “has been having since he was a child.”
Club officials are not worried though. Gyamar’s uncle Paro, who bought him his first pair of football boots, says that the family carries the football gene. “His father played in the Subroto Cup, I have played for Arunachal Pradesh, and now Nikum is playing at a very high level. But at home, there is no lack of motivation when it comes to maintaining fitness levels.”
Gyamar wants to keep playing at clubs where he gets regular game time, which is the best way to get called up for the national team. However, he also understands that a football career will have its ups and downs, and that it is important to not get carried away. But he is proud about one massive change he has triggered in his state. “It’s not often that people in Arunachal turn a sporting hobby into something more. Now, people stand outside the house asking for tips on how to make it in football, and parents can believe that it’s okay to send kids out for a shot at a sporting career. To be the first is good, but to be the first of hopefully many will be the real achievement.”
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.