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Indian Football

Dheeraj Singh: The story of India’s brightest keeping talent

Arinjay Ghosh writes about the story of Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, India’s brightest goalkeeping talent.

“Dheeraj, we came from Manipur to see you” – read a banner held up by one amongst the 41,202 gathered at the Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan to witness the opening game of Indian Super League, edition 5. This was the same banner that greeted the Indian football team inside the Jawaharlal Stadium in New Delhi during the FIFA U-17 World Cup, 2017. One year moved, the banner-man stopped by to pay a visit to a World Cupper in Kolkata.

The Beginning

Dheeraj was not originally meant to be a footballer. He was academically bright and took a fancy to Science and Math. In his residential school, Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, Dheeraj preferred the solitude of the badminton court to the din of the overcrowded football ground. It was only due to the persistence of a local coach did Dheeraj begin playing football by attending the Sunday training of a local club, Amofa FC. But the biggest hurdle of Dheeraj’s foray into football was neither his whim nor his (lack of) talent, but his parents. In fact, if his parents had their way, he would have probably been the average Indian college student, and not a sportsman at all. Such was their stand against the pursuit of the sport that they refused to buy their son the football boots he needed to attend practice. Hailing from Moirang, a small town tucked away in the Bishnupur district of Manipur at a time when football wasn’t a financially viable career option, one could understand the dilemma of Dheeraj’s parents. But that would hardly deter Dheeraj, as he turned to his grandmother, who more out of love than logic, obliged to her favourite grandchild, thus starting a historic journey.

In Amofa FC, Dheeraj began doing all the basic drills comprising passing, shooting and dribbling. Being a kid of hardly 11, the coach would ask him, and all his compatriots, to play different outfield positions while teaching them general technical skills. One fine Sunday as the coach walked in to training a little late, all the kids began taking shots on goal. Since Dheeraj liked catching the ball, he decided to act goalkeeper and almost instinctively, began diving around, saving a few shots in the process. By this time, coach Surendro Singh had quietly made his way on to the pitch and more out of accident than design, discovered Dheeraj’s goalkeeping potential.

Being the coach of the district team also, Singh began harnessing Dheeraj’s potential and made him Bishnupur district’s goalkeeper in the U-14 inter-district state championship of 2011. Here, Dheeraj excelled beyond expectation as his team won the tournament. Such was the quality of his performances that at merely 11, Dheeraj was picked for the U-14 state team to take part in the National Championship of 2011. Dheeraj impressed again, this time in Kalyani, which prompted the AIFF scouts to pick him for their U-14 academy in West Bengal. An acceptance letter from the nation’s highest footballing body made believers out of Dheeraj’s parents and at 11 years old Dheeraj walked into a playroom of 14-year olds.

The Becoming

It is popularly believed that Dheeraj was fast-tracked because of his vertical prowess. But his U-16 National team coach, Goutam Ghosh, retrospectively believes that it was his receptiveness to critique and ability to handle setbacks that made him grow. When he came to the academy, he was nearly three years younger than everyone else and at that stage, it is a massive gap in terms of prowess, physical maturity and mental fortitude. In fact, the thought of releasing him due to his age also crossed the mind of the wise men in the academy but his work ethic forced them to keep him and even give him the occasional game. Despite taking commendable strides, Dheeraj was unable to make the national side for the AFC U-14 Football Festival or the SAARC Championship in 2012 because of his communication issues. After all, this was the same boy that preferred the shuttle and racquet to a football only a couple of years back because he was too shy to step on to an overcrowded pitch.

During such times of disappointment, his coaches stood firmly by him and kept him at the academy. This decision would soon start reaping results as Dheeraj started showing an immaculate aptitude towards incorporating alterations made to his game. Apart from improving his glovework, he was also making a conscious effort to be the loudest on the pitch, communicating with and organizing his backline. In no more than a year of his exclusion from the U-14 team, a 13-year-old Dheeraj was back in the national team; only this time he would be traveling to Kathmandu for the U-16 SAFF Championship as India’s first choice goalkeeper.

India conceded just one goal throughout the tournament as the youngest player of the championships played India’s talisman in both, the semi-final and the final. At the Army Ground in Kathmandu, India’s semi-final encounter against Afghanistan headed to a penalty shootout following a goalless draw. Krishna Pandit walked up to take the first spot kick of the shootout and fluffed his lines leaving Dheeraj to do something very special. The child from Moirang turned boy as he thwarted Afghanistan twice in their last three attempts – first diving low to his left and then in a motion mimicking a bird, he flew high to his right to ensure the 5th Afghan penalty would be the last kick of the game as India prevailed 4-3. In the final, Dheeraj had to leverage all his prowess, physical growth and mental fortitude making as many as 13 saves on a difficult pitch worsened by torrential downpour. In front of a packed Dasarath Rangasala Stadium supporting the hosts and opposition, Nepal, the most telling save of his 13 came well beyond regulation time – 4 minutes and 53 seconds of injury time had elapsed when the ball fortuitously fell to Ananta Tamang 6 yards from goal; the Nepalese sniper lashed out a right boot and had begun to wheel away in jubilation until he saw the left palm of Dheeraj miraculously prevent the ball from finding the net. As goalkeeper and striker lay on the wet grass, the referee signalled the end of the game and India became champions.

Dheeraj’s showings drew interest from Europe but the AIFF decided to keep him under their tutelage sending him to their Elite Academy that was preparing from the U-17 World Cup in Goa. In the next few years, Dheeraj honed his craft and became the group’s first choice goalkeeper by the time the team left for the various exposure tours to Europe in 2015. Although results hardly favoured India in the next couple of years, Dheeraj stood out in most games, often being the difference between romp and respectability. The gloveman himself has spoken highly of the gruel the entire group went through against physically and technically superior opponents. Dheeraj, of course, has special regard for Paulo Grilo, the Portuguese goalkeeping coach, who he credits for his ground-breaking World Cup campaign where he made 16 saves at an astonishing 64% success rate. A testament to his overall improvement as a goalkeeper was evidenced during the Columbia game where he would swiftly scamper upfield, fulfilling the modern role of the “sweeper-keeper”.

Dheeraj was so good during the World Cup that the opposition managers spoke specifically about him in every post-match press conference. While all the coaches were taken in by his shot-stopping, the Columbian coaches spoke highly of his speed coming off the line as he rushed out on 4 different occasions to thwart attacks well outside his penalty area. The coach also reserved special remarks for his distribution wherein Dheeraj managed to throw a ball beyond the centre line.

As the final whistle of India’s maiden World Cup affair sounded, quite audible chants in the name of Dheeraj reverberated around the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Overwhelmed and almost in tears, the goalkeeper threw his gloves into the stands. Delhi, a non-footballing city on the best of days, stood up and applauded the Indian National Football team’s efforts. Dheeraj’s performances had won more than just the cognoscenti over.

A Stutter And The Second Beginning

Following the World Cup, Dheeraj played 6 games till the end of 2017 for the Indian Arrows before deciding to try out his luck in Europe. His international exploits had drawn interest from various clubs in the United Kingdom and he managed to secure a trial with Scottish side, Motherwell FC. His decision to not extend his contract left his then coach, Matos unimpressed as he believed that Dheeraj made the switch too early on the advice of “non-footballing” people and that would stunt his natural progression. When Dheeraj left for Scotland in February, 2018, he knew that he would face an uphill battle. He would not only have to best the weather but also guard against being a gimmick to enter the Indian market.

In his two months stay in Scotland, Dheeraj did face a few problems. The accent, the cold and the winds took a toll on the teenager but this wasn’t the first time he was facing external pressure. Knowing very well that his gloves were his ally, Dheeraj impressed his coaches, earning a three-year contract with the club. But sadly, due to certain complications relating to a work permit, Dheeraj had to come back despite being his usual brilliant self, besting tough conditions.

Dheeraj returned home in June to plenty of suitors before deciding to join Kerala Blasters FC in the ISL. Speaking about his decision to join the Blasters, Dheeraj spoke of familiarity – as he had trained with them last season before leaving for Scotland – and the chance to learn first-hand from David James were the major reasons behind his decision to join the club based out of Kochi. Here too, despite being the youngest, Dheeraj masterfully replicated his erstwhile career pattern to find himself regularly starting in pre-season.

Arriving in Kolkata, David James crystallized the criteria for every player, particularly Dheeraj, to start – be the best in training. Thus, when the starting 11 was announced on Saturday for the opening game of ISL 5, there was little surprise in seeing “Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem” written on the team sheet. Even the usually cynical Kolkata crowd reserved a loud cheer of recognition for him as his name was bellowed through the stadium loudspeaker. This recognition came from the Maidan faithful who had prima facie evidence of his glovework – brilliance that triggered the beginning of current ATK assistant coach, Sanjoy Sen’s end at Mohun Bagan in late 2017.

His footballing ability was never in doubt but there was a quiet concern whether his stutter in Scotland was a disappointment too severe. In his interactions with the media since his return, Dheeraj spoke about responsibilities of staying alone and elaborated on how he grew up during his stint in Scotland. He spoke with a glimmer in his eyes of the high-end facilities and infrastructure; the pace and technicality of their game; and how the players had welcomed him in their midst as a younger brother. It was evident as daylight that Dheeraj desperately wanted his foreign stint to work out. Of course, this was not the first time the Manipuri was facing an obstacle but one feared because after all, he was still only a boy. Thereupon, when Dheeraj walked out amongst a sea of men on Saturday, it was not so much a test of Dheeraj’s footballing ability as that of his character and mental fortitude.

Dheeraj is by no means a finished product and neither was his performance flawless but when he towered above his captain, Sandesh Jhingan in the dying stages of the game to ensure his clean sheet, there seemed to be a finality – the boy from Moirang had unmistakably come back a man from Motherwell.

Arinjay Ghosh

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