Jackichand Singh had never heard of Jackie Chan till a few years ago, when his mother finally told him he was named after the Chinese superstar.
Jackichand was 15 and had just been named man of the tournament at the Subroto Cup, the country’s premier inter-school football tournament. In the middle of a press conference, a few journalists insisted he call up his mother and ask the story behind his name. Till then, the thought had never occurred to him. His parents, it turned out, were big fans of Jackie Chan. “That was the first time I heard his name. Even my parents did not mention it to me before. It felt strange,” Jackichand, now 23, says.
Eight years on, Jackie, as he is fondly called by his teammates, has emerged as one of the most promising young talents in Indian football, exhibiting the speed and dexterity akin to his namesake. He has played an influential role in Shillong-based club Royal Wahingdoh’s memorable debut in the I-League, where they stand an outside chance of being crowned India’s champions. With five goals, he is the third-highest scorer among Indians but it’s his contribution in initiating moves and setting up his teammates that has put him on the radar of several big I-League clubs and made him one of the most sought-after players for this year’s Indian Super League auction/draft, where he is expected to rake in big bucks.
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It will complete a full circle for Jackie. Growing up in Manipur, football was not his priority. His father was a farmer but the produce was never sufficient to run a family. His mother ran a tea stall next to a playground in the middle of the village. Every evening, he sat and watched a group of teenagers showboat their skills. He was mesmerised. “They used to stop by for tea after playing and kept the ball at the shop. After they would leave, I used to take the ball and play alone, trying to emulate the tricks,” Jackie, who made his India debut against Nepal last month, says.
Soon, he was addicted to the game. Every month, he would borrow Rs 20 from his parents to pay a local coach. For Rs 100, he bought a used pair of football boots from his friend. They were a size smaller, but he couldn’t care less. The coach advised him to move to Shillong to train at the Army Boys academy.
“When my father dropped me at the bus stop, I cried a lot. I didn’t want to leave him and go,” he says. After a couple of successful years at the academy, he was picked up by Royal Wahingdoh, and there has been no looking back since. Jackie has been an integral part of the team, helping them win the second division last year and become contenders for the I-League crown this season.
He is living his dream. Sporting a flamboyant hairstyle and six tattoos, he fits the image of the quintessential modern-day footballer. His entire left arm is covered in ink — a Chinese fish that symbolises success, perseverance and longevity is intertwined with a colourful dragon. But it’s the pink heart with the face of a woman near his wrist that demands attention. “That’s something my friend tried. It was done long, long back. I don’tn even remember why,” he says, embarrassed. A teenage crush, perhaps? “No… I married her four years ago. She is the mother of my three-year-old son,” he smiles. “She was my neighbour at Manipur. We grew up together. Once I got a proper salary from Wahingdoh, I didn’t see any reason why I should delay the marriage.”
The names of his wife and son are inked on his right arm – Beauty and Civic. “Such names are common back home,” he reasons, adding that he had a teammate whose name was Firstmayborn because, well, he was born on May 1. Another was named Smiling.
The prospect of playing in the ISL excites him. It would help him finish the construction of his house in Manipur. But at the same time, he is resisting the urge of joining bigger I-League clubs for better money. “It would be good to get picked in the ISL. When I started out, I played football for money because I’ve seen what poverty is. But my perspective has changed over the years. Money is important even now but it is not the dictating factor. I share a special relationship with Royal Wahingdoh. It won’t be so easy to end it,” he says.