For Indian footballers, Euro 2020 would be a good pastime during the current break. But for Suresh Singh Wangjam, the Indian football team’s 20-year-old midfielder, there’s not a lot of room to switch off.
Every time, the French football team was in action during the tournament, his phone would buzz and a message from Sunil Chhetri would pop up. ‘Watch how (N’Golo) Kante plays’.
The Indian captain who has been on Euro 2020 broadcast duty with Sony Sports Network for the Euros found enough time to sneak this message to the young midfielder.
It wasn’t just the Indian captain though. Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu too urged young Suresh to do the same. ‘Watch Kante play.’
In his short career so far, he has displayed traits mastered by the France and Chelsea midfielder – cover a lot of ground to close the space for opponents, break up play and bomb forward to join in the attack.
So it comes as a little surprise that Suresh Singh has played in each of the last five matches of the Indian national team. And his teammates’ eagerness for him to learn and improve suggests that they see him playing in that Indian shirt for a long, long time.
“Every now and then you get a character that you want to go on the pitch with and Suresh’s one such character,” Chhetri said in a video posted by Bengaluru FC.
“He’s a proper, proper fighter. He’s young, he wants to learn. He makes mistakes but he’ll admit it, go back and learn again. He wants to know everything. He always wants to copy me; in the gym, with what I eat. It’s annoying, but in a very nice way,” he added.
Suresh though has had to come a long way just to be assured enough to pick the brains of the Indian captain. In his early days at Bengaluru FC where he met Chhetri for the first time, he was totally overwhelmed by his persona.
“Initially, I was scared to face him. I used to hide. Even in training, when it came to Chhetri bhai, I couldn’t even make a simple pass to him. There was so much pressure on me that it was hard,” Suresh told Scroll.in during online interaction.
“Then Gurpreet bhai told me to treat Chhetri bhai like a friend and I slowly got used to it. However, even now when I pass to him sometimes, there is pressure,” he added.
But any nerves would have been settled when Suresh expertly assisted Chhetri for his second goal against Bangladesh in the World Cup qualifiers. To create a goal in a team that struggles to score many, counts for a lot.
‘Not afraid of challenges’
Suresh, though, has excelled in his core responsibilities despite not having the physical traits one associate with his position. The Imphal midfielder is relatively short and not very well built. In recent games, especially against Gulf countries like Oman, UAE and Qatar, he was up against a lot of physically stronger midfielders. But the challenge did not faze him.
“I don’t have this mentality to be afraid of the opponents,” Suresh said.
“During my junior days, I faced a lot of games against stronger opponents. When I was playing for India U-18 side, we faced Argentina U-20 team and beat them. So those games prepared me for touch challenges and the physicality of opponents is not an issue for me,” added the combative midfielder.
Suresh was in their faces, denying them space to play and breaking with pace whenever he got a chance. His performance against Qatar where India avoided a potential hiding despite playing the game with ten men for most parts was quite impressive.
He kept Hasan Al-Haydos, Qatar’s best midfielder in check as the Asian champions failed to score more than one goal.
He followed it up with solid performances against Bangladesh and Afghanistan that provided a different challenge. He drifted on the flanks to open up a passing lane through midfield. Out wide, he used his athleticism to run up and down the flanks and performed a slightly tweaked role to perfection.
Growing up as a kid in Imphal, he was deployed as a winger. It was a time when qualities like pace, athleticism and good stamina were seen best suited for the flanks. However, as time has proved and with Kante being a prime example, these qualities can prove to be very useful in the centre of the park as well.
Suresh Singh’s energy in the middle of the park adds dynamism to the team he plays for. For ninety minutes, he is always running. He never seems to get tired.
“It’s not true, I also get tired. It’s just that I want to be there to make a tackle or give a pass or to stop a player from progressing. It’s the desire to win these mini battles that pushes me on,” Suresh said.
For a player his age, Suresh seems to have a mature head on his shoulders. He knows where his strengths lie, but more importantly, he knows where he can get better.
“I have a lot to improve. In the recent World Cup qualifiers, I saw how fast the game was on the international stage. I want to improve in every aspect. I want to be a proper midfielder,” he said.
Suresh Singh is a key member for both his country and club. In the 2020-’21 ISL season, he played in 19 matches for Bengaluru FC and made more tackles than any of his teammates. He was also among team’s top five passers and often a go-to man for his coach.
Only 20, Suresh Singh Wangjam was tipped to be one for the future, but he’s already shining in the present.