Growing up Arjun Tudu would wait till it was dark to return home after his evening football game. He feared his father would give him a beating on seeing his worn-out shoes. “Money was always a problem. My father couldn’t afford shoes. After a point he stopped buying them for me,” recalls the 25-year-old, who top scored for the victorious Services team that defended their Santosh Trophy title last week. As Tudu grew taller, and he couldn’t kick the habit of playing football, he started wearing his father’s shoes for games. “Then I’d get an even bigger hiding.”
Hailing from Sarjamda village near Jamshedpur, Tudu’s father Chunu worked as a part-time electrician and labourer at the Tata industries nearby. He also played football for the village team in the Jamshedpur League. It was watching his father play that Tudu would start playing as well. Fast forward to last week in Nagpur, when the Services team sought to defend the Santosh Trophy title. The armymen found their striker exhibiting an unexpected set of technical skills. For all the four years that Tudu had been in the squad, the Bihar Regiment Hawaldar was known for his blistering pace and powerful shooting. Now the striker was holding the ball, looking for passes and carefully measuring his off-the-ball runs into space — all previously unseen.
The changes have all been credited to the 20 days he spent in the national camp, his first ever call-up, ahead of December’s SAFF Cup. “When he came back, he had become more careful in his possession. Earlier he would just shoot on sight. Now he was not making hasty decisions,” explains SP Shaji, the Services coach. “He also learned to use his body well to shield the ball from defenders when making quick turns. His shooting too became more efficient as his new technique let’s him control the elevation. He keeps his shots low, making it harder for goalkeepers to save,” Shaji adds. What has remained constant, however, is his ferocious speed that wreaked havoc on opposition defences, helping him find the net 10 times, including a brace in the 2-1 win over Maharashtra in the final.
Ironically, it was his father to whom he attributes his pace. “He used to watch me play in the park and shout at me because he thought I was too slow. ‘Aur tez bhaag,’ he’d shout. Then once in a while he would also take me to the park to just run and do nothing else,” he says. “That’s how my shoes would tear,” he adds as an after-thought, laughing.
The large park was divided into two sections — the larger portion for the grown-ups, and at small spit of land for the children in a corner. “That time the ambition was always to get a chance to play in the ‘bado ka ground’,” he remembers fondly.
Eventually the ambition was to join the army. Once every few months, an armyman hailing from the village would return home, play football in the bigger ground and mention the upcoming trials. In 2002, while playing on the big ground, Tudu heard about the trials in Patna. He scored twice during the sessions and earned a place at the Army Institute. There Tudu had no problem getting a new kit and boots whenever his old pair would wear off. Yet he still remembers how he would continue using his ripped boots till the point he was practically running bare feet — all because of the fear of asking his father for new shoes.
Now he plies his trade for the Army XI team that competes in the Kolkata League. Tudu’s performances helped the team fight through a narrow 3-2 defeat to East Bengal, before winning 1-0 against I-League champions Mohun Bagan. “I didn’t score, but I still had a good game,” he says proudly.
Meanwhile the financial situation at home has eased out a bit. Shoes can be bought if and when needed. Chunu’s playing days, nonetheless are well behind him now, though once in a while he does feel like going out for the occasional game in the park. But since he doesn’t own a pair of his own boots, he does what his son often did to him. “He steals one of my jerseys and a pair of boots to play,” Tudu concludes.