Sahal Abdul Samad, India’s 22-year-old midfielder who grew up in United Arab Emirates, won’t ever forget the time Sunil Chhetri gave him a lecture that lasted over an hour.
It was when the youngster was relatively new to the senior national team camp. Chhetri, who even at age of 35 can give youngsters a run for their money, spoke about the importance of proper rest, diet and practice.
Up and coming midfielder Anirudh Thapa and two other newcomers, Amarjit Singh Kiyam and goalkeeper Kamaljit Singh, were also in attendance. But it was Samad who had a lot to gain from the captain’s words. For, no other player had managed to catch Chhetri’s attention in as short a time as the Kerala playmaker did when coach Igor Stimac blooded a new set of young players in the national team.
“If I had to pick one midfielder that I really hope does well, it is Sahal. If that guy understands the kind of potential he has, maintains his body and puts his head on his shoulders, he is an extremely gifted talent. He is someone who really excites me,” Chhetri had said during a media interaction in May.
Given his ability to dance his way past defenders, pull off cheeky body feints and spray defense splitting-passes, Samad’s stock has only grown since his national team debut in July against Curacao at the King’s Cup in Thailand.
But Samad’s journey to this point has been surprising and rather unusual.
Before being drafted into Kerala Blasters reserve team for the 2017-’18 Indian Super League season, he had never played professional football. Born and raised in Al Ain, Samad spent his childhood playing seven-a-side football in Oman.
He then decided to come and complete his college degree in India, just to pursue his dream of becoming a professional footballer. Samad calls it the best decision of his life, a call in which he was fully supported by his family members.
“The decision-making [about coming to India] was the biggest challenge. I wasn’t sure about coming here but my brother and father helped me take that call, ” Samad told Scroll.in.
Not everything was hunky dory in India though. He had to leave his mother’s family and stay alone at a hostel at the Sree Narayana College in Kannur since it took two-three hours to travel to and from. But he cared about football enough to juggle his studies and game, grabbing whatever opportunities came his way.
Samad switched to a new college and excelled at University-level tournaments. That saw him get a chance to play for Kannur’s Under-21 district team. The youngster was then drafted into Kerala’s Santosh Trophy squad for the 2016-’17 season alongside playing local sevens. His performances here caught the eye of Kerala Blasters scouts.
“I got so many opportunities in India. There [in UAE] I didn’t play for any professional clubs, just academies and Friday sevens [seven-a-side football]. That gave me experience as well. So when I came back to Kerala and started with sevens it was easy to adapt. The game was rough here. I struggled but then it became a habit,” he said.
Following Chhetri’s example
Initially, Samad struggled with building confidence but cameo appearances for Kerala Blasters during the 2017-’18 season gave him the belief that he could cut his teeth at the international level. He had a breakthrough season the following year despite the club’s struggles, bagging the ISL and All India Football Federation Emerging Player awards.
Samad’s mesmerising dribbling and varied range of passing have earned him the moniker of ‘Indian Ozil’. And just like the German superstar, for the 22-year-old Indian midfielder, assisting goals brings more satisfaction than finding the back of the net.
“Personally, for me, I try to enjoy as much as I can. That is my game. I enjoy dribbling, giving through passes, take ons. Dribbling is my favourite. That’s what I love to do,” he said.
Kerala Blasters coach Eelco Schattorie has promised to make him the best midfielder in India, something which Samad acknowledges and is working towards. However, his long-term goal is to be an asset for the national team like Chhetri.
“He [Chhetri] always gives advice and that’s what I love him for. Whenever he gets time, he gives us [youngsters] advice,” Samad said. “Chhetri tells me to play simple, build up the confidence and then go back to your [natural] game and do whatever you want. First, rise and then take off.”
Living up to the hype
Samad has so far made nine appearances for the national team with no goals or assists to his name. After setting a bright first impression, his recent performances have been gone off the boil during India’s 2022 World Cup qualifier matches.
At club level, his numbers have improved statistically compared to last season but he is still gradually settling into Schattorie’s system at Kerala Blasters. The midfielder is finding his feet, so far starting in four out of their nine games, racking up two assists along the way. The Dutch manager, however, believes it is just a matter of time before Samad achieves the right maturity.
“He [Sahal] is an intuitive player, he reacts to the situation. He’s a beautiful, beautiful player but still not mature. There are moments where he outplays 1-2 players, has good passes and creates danger but at times loses the ball for nothing,” Schattorie said to Scroll.in.
Schattorie wants Samad to envision things that are going around him over relying on intuition.
”He needs to work playing better in a system, working together with others, anticipating better where there is space and more. Everything is still done on intuition. Sometimes that is fantastic but also ineffective,” the former East Bengal manager pointed.
Samad admits he needs to step up. For him, the expectations don’t act as pressure but rather drive him towards success. Stimac has placed his trust in Samad to fill the coveted No 10 role for India in the long term and the Kerala youngster wants to build on the promise he has displayed so far.
“If I work harder, I can do that [fill the No 10 role]. I know my potential and what I am capable of [achieving]. So do the fans,” he said.