As Jeakson Singh Thounaojam headed the corner of Sanjeev Stalin into the bars of Colombia, he engraved his name in Indian football history as the first goal scorer across all age groups in a World Cup. Though India had lost the game 1-2, the goal will be cherished by the Indian football fans for years to come.
Jeakson hails from Haokha Mamang village in Manipur’s Thoubal district. As football has taken a huge leap in the north-eastern part of India, Jeakson was attracted to this game from his childhood.
The undulating slopes often saw Jeakson piercing through the turns and carves of hilly roads with a football along with his brother and cousins. He was just 10-year-old when he left his hometown to travel all the way to Chandigarh to work on his football education. He was accompanied by his first cousin Amarjit Singh, the current skipper of India U-17 team.
In Chandigarh, Jeakson Singh joined the Chandigarh Football Academy where he trained to play like his football idols Bhaichung Bhutia and Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets. The dream of playing for the national team was always there and thus, in 2015, Jeakson decided to appear for the trials before the national team selectors held in Chandigarh. But then chief coach Nicolai Adam felt, at nearly 6 feet at 14 years, Jeakson was ‘unnaturally tall’ for his age. He was rejected though Amarjit was selected for the junior camp.
“I did not lose heart and kept on thinking that I will one day make it to the Indian team.”
But conditions became harsh for him as, back home, his father Konthoujam Deben Singh suffered a stroke and had to leave his job with the Manipur police. His family had to depend on the meagre income brought by his mother from selling vegetables at the Khwairamband Bazar in Imphal, 25km from his home. His elder brother Jonichand Singh currently plays for Peerless Club in Kolkata Premier League and contributes a little to the family income.
“Things were alright when I left home. But my father’s illness changed the whole scenario. I was very worried at that time. But my family always encouraged me and that was my strength.”
Unwilling to be depressed, Jeakson Singh then joined Minerva, another Chandigarh-based academy. He performed brilliantly for the team and led them to the national U-15 and U-16 titles in 2016 and 2017. As a result, Minerva was invited to play friendly matches against the India U-17 team in Goa in March 2017. Minerva defeated the U-17 team 1-0 which was comprised of the best junior players and Jeakson impressed India’s Portugese coach Luis Norton de Matos who succeeded Nicolai Adam.
“We beat India U-17 team 1-0 and after that I along with Nongdamba Naorem, Mohammad Shahjahan and Anwar Ali were selected for the India camp at the AIFF Academy in Goa.”
Selected for the India camp, Jeakson Singh trained in the AIFF Academy before breaking into the Indian squad for the prestigious World Cup. It was the first time India was hosting such a big FIFA event and everyone was intensely excited. As India played their biggest football game on 6th October 2017 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi against USA, it was a big day for all the junior Indian players. The host lost the match 0-3 but it was not about the result for India. It was about the 90 minutes of play in a FIFA World Cup, something that has never been experienced by the country.
The players took forward this experience from the previous match and stepped onto the field in their next match against Colombia. There was a marked change in India’s approach in that match as they began with a 4-4-2 combination.
Till half time it was a tough battle as both teams played extraordinary football to defend their posts. But at the 48th minute Colombian striker Juan Penaloza hit a curled one with his left-foot to defeat Indian goalkeeper Dheeraj.
Though down by one goal, the Indian colts did not lose their heart. Midfielder Jeakson Singh played one of the best matches of his career, dictating play from the midfield alongside captain Amarjit Singh. Jeakson picked up the loose balls and distributed them well to the forwards.
However, his biggest moment came when he jumped over the Colombian defence to head home Sanjeev Stalin’s in swinging delivery from a corner. The whole of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium erupted in joy and so were the thousands of football fans across the country.
“I felt on cloud nine when I scored the goal. We deserved a result, and we tried our best to get it but in the process we learnt a huge lesson about what international football is all about.”
Jeakson etched his name in the history books. He made his family proud who stood by him through thick and thin. But he definitely belongs to this nation. And to sign off with Sunil Chhetri’s words, “Not sure if I’ve been happier watching a goal scored by an Indian team. So much to be proud about and so much to learn.”