Goalkeeper Mohammad Nawaz’s first impression in Indian Super League was anything but impressive. In FC Goa’s first match of the season – against NorthEast United – the teenager’s brain-fade cost his team a sloppy goal.

Goa’s high defensive line had given NorthEast United striker Bartholomew Ogbeche the license to go on a threatening run. Nawaz, sensing danger, came charging out and handled the ball some 25-yards away from goal. A whistle was blown for a foul from the referee and Federico Gallego pounced on the dead ball, chipping it into the empty goal with Nawaz watching on helplessly.

It is easy for a debutant to crumble mentally from conceding a lead that early in the game, that too, in your first game. “I heard a whistle for offside,” Nawaz told Scroll.in, recalling that moment of horror. “I just thought of stepping out but not catching the ball from there.”

Luckily for the Manipuri, the free-scoring FC Goa side picked themselves up from that howler and earned a point in what was a highly entertaining four-goal thriller that finished 2-2.

Nawaz shrugged it off. “Immediately, I forgot. I learnt from that mistake....life goes on.”

Nawaz stats for the ongoing ISL season (As of February, 5) / Courtesy: Indian Super League
Nawaz stats for the ongoing ISL season (As of February, 5) / Courtesy: Indian Super League

Already, quite the journey

Despite arriving on the scene only recently, Nawaz has undergone a wide range of experiences.

He was in the running to earn a spot in the U-17 World Cup squad, India’s first-ever Fifa event. Under India U-17 coach Luis Norton de Matos, Nawaz was sidelined, and eventually missed out on a place. When reminded of that phase, the 19-year-old said that while it was heartbreaking, he had his eyes set on bigger things. The support he received from the team after not making the cut, Nawaz says, played a catalyst in eyeing greater success.

That moment arrived during FC Goa’s pre-season. The Gaurs, for all their high-intensity, possession-based football, were leaky at the back last season. The experienced Laxmikant Kattimani had an error-strewn time between the sticks and coach Sergio Lobera decided he had enough.

“When I joined Goa, I thought I was ready to play,” Nawaz said. “When I joined for the pre-season, I gave it my best shot and I was working very hard there.”

A sudden turn of events saw the teenager emerging as the team’s custodian. “Ahead of the first match, the coach just asked me ‘are you ready?’ and I said ‘yes, I am’. He put me in XI. I was little bit nervous in the beginning but I settled down as the match progressed.”

Nawaz hasn’t looked back since Goa’s season opener. He has been able to strike a decent working relationship with his backline. With the season just over the half-way mark, the Imphal-born custodian has come for a lot of praise from Indian football connoisseurs and pundits alike for his reflexes and his passing range.

“You need to take some risks when you want to achieve things and that comes with giving the younger players a chance,” Goa coach Lobera said after his side’s 2-0 win over Mumbai City FC. “With Nawaz, I thought he was brave, had all the qualities to take responsibility and do well for us.”

With Matos, Nawaz was overlooked because of his height (he stands just over 5’9) but being physically imposing was not on Lobera’s checklist. The Spaniard’s experience with the youth teams of Barcelona, that stretched to close to almost a decade, came in handy.

Nawaz is usually the first point of attack for the 2015 finallists and has a pass percentage that averages in the 80s now; Only Delhi Dynamos’s Francisco Dorronsoro has fared better in the division.

The stopper attributes his time as a youth footballer for that. “It is true that the coach likes to keep the ball. I was an outfield player when I was young. I played in most of the positions including that of a striker. It changed after the trials in 2013.

“It was for a state-level tournament in Kalyani in 2012 as a junior player. From 2013, I have been a goalkeeper. And, I am comfortable with both feet. Whenever the ball comes, I don’t instinctively look to go on my stronger side.”

Dheeraj vs Nawaz

With ISL entering the business end of the season, the goalkeeper’s role will be crucial. Just take Goa’s match over the weekend. The visitors, after a solid first half, briefly took their foot off the pedal in the second. Mumbai looked certain to equalise at the hour mark after a gilt-edged chance fell in the path of midfielder Paulo Machado. Nawaz, though, thwarted the chance from close range with authority.

And , pretty much out of nowhere, Nawaz is now pitted against statemate Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem in the race for being the backup to regular no 1 Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

Dheeraj, not so long ago, was easily winning the race following impressive displays in the U-17 World Cup and earning a trial with Scottish Premier League side Motherwell. However, the youngster has had a humbling experience with Kerala Blasters. The two-time finallists languish in the ninth place in the league.

Nawaz says he enjoys the competition. “He [Dheeraj] was roommate from 2014, since our time as junior players. We have been competing for a place in the starting XI for the last five years,” he said.

“It is also very difficult [to compete with him] because he is very good. The U-23 Indian team selection is coming up and I hope to be in the mix. If Dheeraj is there, we can compete there as well,” Nawaz said with a twinkle in eye, clearly relishing the battle.

That battle, though, is for another day. Goa currently sit third in the table and Nawaz is hot on the heels of Mumbai City’s Amrinder Singh with the clean-sheet record. He has also bagged the Emerging Player of the Match five times in 13 games, summing up his steady rise.

Nawaz is not getting carried away. “I just want to make the coach believe that Nawaz can play through the entire season. I don’t want to make any mistakes.”

In world football, there is now a demand for goalkeepers who are comfortable on tne ball. There are more teams craving for a Manuel Neuer, Manchester City’s Ederson or Liverpool’s Allison Becker. Under Lobera’s footballing model, Nawaz is making rapid strides in developing into a ball-playing sweeper-keeper.