Most professional footballers in West Bengal start developing an affinity for the sport while playing in the para (community) playgrounds during their childhood. If he scores a few or strings some neat passes, his football-enthusiast parent would, more often than not, get him registered into a local academy with a dream that his son would one day represent Mohun Bagan or East Bengal.
Abhash Thapa’s story almost treads on the same lines. His father Dhan Chand Thapa was a district-level player and has been a constant pillar of support in his journey so far. Chand inducted his son in an academy at his hometown Bandel, at a very tender age. And within months, Abhash would find himself participating in the Subroto Cup tournament for a local school as a striker and also in inter-district football tournaments.
"Interestingly, I started playing cricket at first. But I lost interest in it soon and enrolled myself in a football academy. Since my father himself was a footballer, he would give me ample freedom to pursue the sport," reminisced the 21-year-old to Goal.
At 14 he started taking trials for various Kolkata outfits like Mohammedan Sporting and Mohun Bagan. He got through Mohammedan and under coach Saeed Anwar, he started playing as a winger-cum-striker. But his days in Black and White were numbered as he was selected by Bagan's SAIL Academy in Durgapur where he would spend his formative years as a player.
"Jahar Das was my coach in the first year. It was an U18 team and I was just 14 when I joined. Naturally, I did not get any competitive minutes in my first year. In my second year, I first played for the team in an invitational tournament in Chandigarh as a central midfielder. I was playing in different positions and I learnt a lot."
Incidentally, Brazilian defender Douglas De Silva started his coaching career in this academy in 2014. It was him who first deployed Thapa as a full-back during one of the youth league games. But it was a temporary measure to fill in the vacant boots of the regular right-back who was sidelined with an injury.
"I think I did well as a full-back. I like to attack and go on the overlap and the position was suiting me very well. But coach thought that I would fit as a midfielder and I once again slotted in at the centre of the park."
Thapa spent four years in Durgapur and after graduating he once again started appearing for trials in various clubs for a place in the senior team. It was not a cakewalk as his spirits would be tested with a slew of rejections until he finally landed himself with a contract with Royal Wahingdoh and subsequently, with Bhowanipore FC.
"The Bhowanipore officials liked me during the trial. But Bablu da (Coach, Subrata Bhattacharya) was not impressed. So I could not make it. I then went for trials in Peerless SC. I was practicing with the team but the management was not offering me a contract. Now, Bhowanipore and Peerless practices in close proximity in the Maidan. So one day, one of the Bhowanipore officials spotted me and asked if I was still free. After a few days, I got a call from them and I finally signed."
After joining his first task was to win the confidence of the coach. Bhattacharya was a difficult coach to please but gradually the youngster won him over with hard work and perseverance in the training sessions.
After plying his trade in the Calcutta Football League (CFL) for a season Thapa felt that he was ready for the next step. Fortunately, Real Kashmir was in the city at that time scouting for players for I-League second division.
"Pintu (Mahata) informed me about the trials. It was a closed trial and you needed a recommended to gain entry. Yet I went there with my kit. For three days straight I was tested and after that, I went back home. I kept waiting and after a few days, I got a confirmation. It was a huge relief."
Thapa was picked as a winger but once again providence had something else in store for him. Kamalesh Nadar, the first-choice left-back got injured and David Robertson asked his young turk to fill in that space. He made seven appearances in the second division and played a vital role in Kashmir's promotion to I-League.
He made his debut against Mohun Bagan in the top league and in the very first match, he was given the responsibility to contain Mahata, his long-time friend.
"Pintu was playing as a right-winger. It was completely out of the world to play against Bagan. I was so charged. Fortunately, I had a good game and Pintu was changed in the first half. Playing in the I-League helped me understand that mentality is the most important thing. You should not bog down to pressure. Loveday (Okechukwu) also guided me a lot."
After two successful season in Kashmir, he joined Indian Super League (ISL) side Hyderabad FC but he could not find his foot in new surroundings. he was loaned out to East Bengal. Under Mario Rivera, he became a regular but much to his dismay, he could not participate in the famed Kolkata Derby as the match was called off due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
"It is a huge disappointment. It was a dream to play in the Kolkata Derby. Just a day away and the match got called off. Hopefully, sometime in the future, I will be able to play in that match."
Thapa 's immediate concern is to establish himself as a regular in his next venture so that he can improve further as playing for India remains the ultimate target.