One position that the senior men’s national team has sufficiently covered at the moment is the one behind the backline. There are many contenders vying to be the man between the sticks.
While Gurpreet Singh Sandhu may have that position covered by virtue of being in his own league, as many as five others have been picked in recent squads. Subrata Paul, Albino Gomes, Rehenesh TP, Debjit Majumder and Vishal Kaith are all behind Sandhu in a long queue.
One keeper that’s some years from dislodging Sandhu but is a fan of the Bengaluru custodian is 17-year-old Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem. Coincidentally, Dheeraj is also a fan of Bengaluru, as he had revealed during a press conference prior to the Under-17 World Cup draw in Mumbai.
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As India head into a tough group featuring the United States, Colombia and Ghana, Luis Norton de Matos’ men will be heavily banking on their No. 1 to bail them out whenever necessary and Dheeraj will have to be on his guard all the time against strong opponents.
But who exactly is the gangly Manipuri who has made the junior yellow jersey his own?
Dheeraj was born in the town of Moirang in Manipur, about 45 kilometres from the state capital of Imphal. Dheeraj’s father, Romit told The Field that football wasn’t his first-choice sport, “He started playing badminton at a very young age. He switched to football later.”
A well-built kid for his age, Dheeraj could have opted to become an outfielder like most of the predecessors from his state but fate and all his coaches saw a keeper in the youngster and used him not only as a last line of defence, but an useful outlet for kick-starting attacks.
Having studied and first played football in school, Dheeraj’s first brush with football coaching was at the Amofa Academy in Moirang, where erstwhile coach Surendro Singh saw Dheeraj, 11-years-old and asked him to play goalie. “I thought he was pretty large and I put him in that spot, thinking he would make a good keeper,” Singh said.
Soon, he was on the fast-track to stardom, as he played for Amofa’s Under-14 team in the local age group state league and was fast noticed by scouts not only from the capital, but also from the state football authority.
Devchandra Singh, now trainer at Virchandra Academy in Imphal and previously coach of Manipur’s Under-14 team says Dheeraj got selected for the Bishnupur district team at 11 and was selected for the state team at 12.
“When we played the tournament (AIFF Football Festival) in Kalyani, all the scouts had their eyes on him and we had a strong run, so I wasn’t surprised when the AIFF Academy came calling for him. They couldn’t have gotten a better keeper than Dheeraj,” says Devchandra.
Recollecting his trajectory, in hindsight it does seem like the keeper was destined for the No. 1 jersey. He joined the AIFF Kalyani’s academy Under-14 team when he was 12 and later was promoted as he donned the Under-16 colours at 13, a full two years younger to almost everyone else in the team.
The word everyone seems to use for Dheeraj is ‘intelligent’ – a great reader of the game. Gautam Ghosh, ex-coach of the Under-14 and U-16 teams at the Kalyani academy, can’t stop gushing about Dheeraj.
“Amazingly talented goalkeeper, he has very good leadership qualities. When he came to the academy, there were two other goalkeepers older than him by two years, yet I made him my number one,” says Ghosh when asked about Dheeraj.
For Johnny Chothe, ex-goalkeeping coach with the Manipur state side, it’s Dheeraj’s speed off his line which is his strength, “He has amazing agility and quickness. He’s very quick to latch on to the high ball and his grip (goalkeeping parlance for catching) is excellent.”
The U-16 team that Dheeraj was part of, boasted the likes of Jerry Lalrinzuala, Anirudh Thapa and Boaringdao Bodo among others, yet it was the young keeper who stole the limelight at the 2013 U-16 SAFF Cup, with India winning their first ever title against Nepal at the latter’s Dasarath Rangashala Stadium, with Dheeraj making a string of saves to keep a strong home team out, as the AIFF U-16 team eked out a 1-0 victory.
Shot-stopping and penalty saves have become one of Dheeraj’s strengths, with the keeper saving two penalties at the AFC U-16 championships in Goa last year. He saved one more against South African team Black Aces to earn the team a 1-1 draw in February 2016.
Yet, the youngster has had his moments of learning. At the Granatkin Memorial Cup in Russia, ex-coach Nicolai Adam would take Dheeraj off for Tamal Nasker against Iran in the dying stages, stating that the latter was better at saving penalties. A botched clearance against French league side Saint Leu saw India go down 1-0, eventually coming back to draw 1-1.
At last year’s AFC championships, the defence let in 5 of their 9 goals in the last 20 minutes. While some saw it as indiscipline at the back, others called it a lapse in concentration and a lack of communication.
Ghosh rubbishes all talk of Dheeraj not being vocal enough, “Yes, when he came, he was a shy kid but he is also an educated one and speaks when he has to. If he keeps this mentality and with a bit of luck, he can command defences very well.”
Devchandra echoes Ghosh’s assessment, “He may not look like it but Dheeraj is aggressive. He is very friendly off the pitch but I’ve seen him ticking off defenders for not doing their jobs on the field. In one match, our left-back was being overrun when Dheeraj went up to him and asked him to push out wider while asking the central midfielder to cover for him.”
According to a person in the know, La Liga scouts had once watched Dheeraj at a tournament in Dubai and had wanted him but the AIFF failed to follow-up on their interest and file the necessary paper-work.
Those that know the Real Madrid and Petr Cech fan say that he wants to test his skills outside the country some day.
For now, the most important job in India’s first-ever World Cup appearance may fall to Dheeraj. With India expected to be under siege for most of the matches from opponents who are considerably stronger, de Matos and a billion others can hope that their rock-solid keeper from Moirang can provide the calm amidst the storm.