GROWING UP IN Vallavilai, a coastal village in Tamil Nadu, Jockson Dhas grew up in the middle of the classic Tamil football culture that at one point made the state a powerhouse in Indian football.
The serene little hammock with its coconut groves, finishing nets by the scenic beach and pastoral churches, community football tournaments are a regular occurrence, giving the young Jockson an early look at the competitive form of the sport; something that would go on to shape the Chennai City FC midfielder's life later on.
Looking back at his childhood and the very first memories of playing the sport, Jockson speaks of a connection to the sport through community and family,
"In my locality there are 8 small football grounds that are located nearby. Many football tournaments often happen here and it always happens like a festival. I have bunked school to watch my favourite senior footballers play in these tournaments. I always wished to play with the big brothers who play these tournaments."
Right next to Jockson's childhood home, there's a small playground, ideal for the local kids to get in a quick few 5-a-side matches. When young Jockson wasn't sneaking off to watch the popular local tournaments, this was where he was spending his hours playing football after school,
"In my place most of the people love football and are at it always, I feel blessed and lucky to have born in such a place... everyone here dreams about football and I was also the same."
Jockson was an early teenager by the time he got his first proper coaching on the fundamentals of the sport, and was introduced to competitive football at a local club,
"When I was studying in my eighth grade, Mr. Biju was the one who taught me the basics of the game. He was my first guru. St. Antony’s Sports Club is my local club here and it gave me a chance to compete outside of my district and it was a good experience helping me build my football career. SASC was opened 65 years back and it is a renowned club in the local circuit, they are doing well even now with youngsters from here coming up. SASC always has a special place in my heart."
To Jockson, travelling around the state taking part in football competitions with his club was the first sign of the realisation of a lifelong dream - to become a footballer and make a living playing the sport. His ambition to become a professional footballer, and the physical toll it was taking on an always-feisty young Jockson who was often playing with older players, was a cause for concern for his family intially,
"In the beginning people at my home were not very supportive because I was getting injured often, but once I started playing in the college level gradually the support from my home also increased. Now they are very supportive and always push me to work harder and perform better. Mom, dad and my sister are my biggest motivators."
It wasn't long before his first major career break arrived. While playing for his college, Jockson got selected to play for the Tamil Nadu team in Santosh Trophy,
"Initially I was a substitute in my college team but when I was given a chance in the university final, I grabbed it with both hands and was lucky enough to win the title in the first year. After that I got called up to the state team. The leap was immense and a big step in my career, it was a different level playing for Tamil Nadu state team... wearing the Tamil Nadu jersey was a special feeling that I will always cherish. I was lucky enough to have represented my state in Santhosh trophy and also put up a good performance. Everyone in my village was very proud because I was the first person from Vallavilai to play for Tamil Nadu. I was very happy to have achieved this feat. Previously everybody used to ask me when I was playing in college and other tournaments as to who has played for Tamil Nadu from my village. This question stuck to my head and I decided I will become the answer for this, and I was very happy that I did so."
Of course, playing for the state team, and settling into a regular career wasn't going to be Jockson's limit. Having gotten a taste of the sport at the national level, he was eager to test himself further. For that, he needed to enter professional club football, which was going to be a major transition in terms of his lifestyle and livelihood. At a time when he needed it most, help arrived from a fellow player who had gone through the same process himself,
"My move to Chennai City FC happened because of brother Raegan Albarnas who was a former CCFC player himself. He was working in the same office as I was and he was the one who encouraged me to give it a shot and it worked out well for me now. Albarnas was the guiding light in my football career, he taught me everything and he was very supportive as well. If not for Regin I would have never seen professional football."
That's how, well into his twenties, Jockson finally became a professional footballer, that too at the club that had just been crowned the Champions of India. In December 2019, he played his first match in the I-League for Chennai City. Soon enough, he became a regular starter for the club, adjusting to the higher level of the sport with ease,
"I-League is a way above local league and Santhosh trophy. There is a lot to learn in I-League, it was a major step up in upskilling myself technically as a player. Having foreign players around you give you a lot to take away from the field, they teach you new things and always keep us motivated. It was my first experience with a foreign coach at CCFC and I was blessed to have Akbar sir who was very patient with us right from the very beginning. He taught us everything right from the basics in football, he showed a lot of trust in young local talents and shaped them."
At CCFC he had the chance to do something that's rare for Indian footballers - to test himself at the Asian level for the first time. Chennai City FC were to play in the AFC Champions League Qualifiers and would move to AFC Cup group stage afterwards. For Jockson, this was an opportunity to experience an even higher level of the sport,
"The preparation towards the AFC game was done very well by the management and team. Qe had to work extra hard and the coaches also told us the importance of playing in AFC and always motivated us... the AFC champions league game was a great match as we put up a stiff challenge for our opponents, we did not have much time to prepare for the Champions League as we had to come off an I-league game, I had a small niggle and I could get only 10 minutes in the ACL Qualifier game. Being part of the Champions League game felt like playing in one of Europe’s top leagues... the AFC cup game happened at our home in Chennai and all of us were motivated to put up a good show, we had our relatives in the stands supporting us. We played well but had to settle for a 2-2 draw in the end. The experience playing against foreign team is one to cherish as it developed our game too."
The opportunity, however, proved to be a short-lived one. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, the AFC Cup was put on hold, and later cancelled altogether. Chennai City, who were playing at the continental level for the first time in their history, were robbed off a historic opportunity to represent the country in Asia. Jockson, along with his teammates, was left disappointed,
"When the lockdown was first announced, we were all caught of guard. But later when there were rumors that it will be happening in closed doors, we were happy that we could get a fair shot with five more games to play. The management and the team were motivated to do well but the news about cancellation was a big blow to the dreams of many players in our team. It was a big moment when so many players from Tamil Nadu could in AFC cup games but it was not to happen."
The pandemic and the lockdowns it caused shut down football across the country, and suddenly Jockson was living a different life altogether. He went back home, spending months away from his team and getting very little chances of playing the sport. It took a while to adjust to the new reality, but he found his ways to cope,
"In the initial phase of lockdown, we were restricted to our homes and it was very difficult for this sudden change. As the lockdown eased down, I went to the beach and did some individual training. I was focusing more on the strength training at the gym. Now the cases here have reduced drastically and I am doing practice a bit more freely. The diet is still on because diet is very important to keep a fit body for training. I am able to follow my diet thanks to my mother and my sister who are keeping a tab on what I eat."
Despite the COVID-19 caused setback, which also froze football developmental projects across the country, Jockson sounded optimistic when talking about grassroot football in Tamil Nadu and the changes he has seen in recent years,
"Yes, there is a big improvement from what we had five years ago, there are lot more clubs coming in. Kids at small age are getting the opportunity to be trained by professionals. The academies have become a platform for young talents to shine and move forwards and we have seen that happen in places all over India and will happen in Tamil Nadu as well soon. The grassroots programs have been a major boost for youngsters to pick up this game and also be live they can do well."
Jockson believes once things return to normal, footballing activities at the junior level will pick up from where it left off and continue the upward momentum. As for himself, he can't wait to get back on the pitch in the Chennai City FC pre-season camp, and he has a specific target set for the season,
"My target for next season is to give my 200 percent on the field for CCFC. Last season I was able to provide some assists but this year I also want to contribute with goals for my team. As a club we are looking forwards to bring the cup back home."
The boy from Vallavilai, who used to bunk school to watch football matches, has already accomplished a few milestones. He became the first from his village to play not only for the state team, but also at an international level. Now, he wants to be the first to bring back an I-League winners' medal to his village, and perhaps inspire the next batch of children who are spending hours playing football on sandy grounds near the Southern tip of the country to realise their dreams.