The first ever campaign for an Indian team in the Asian Champions League ended in the group stage itself. In their six games, FC Goa turned heads with two scoreless draws.
But then the tiring schedule, injuries and a piling yellow card list took its toll. And yet, one Indian player was the best across Asia in his position and a bright spot in the inaugural campaign. Five games, 26 saves (the most in the ACL and eight more than the next highest), two clean sheets and only four goals conceded – Dheeraj Singh had a tournament to remember. The Manipuri goalkeeper was the star by consensus of this team on the continent’s big stage.
A notable instance of Singh saving Goa came in their second group game.
In the dying minutes of the match with the score at 0-0, Al Wahad winger Khalil Ibrahim launched a perfectly weighted ball into the box from the right to his teammate Omar Khribin, a yard away from the nearest FC Goa player. Khribin directed his header towards the Gaurs goal where somehow Singh made himself big and pulled out a match-saving save.
Singh pumped his fists at the ground and screamed, but the match wasn’t over yet. Al Wahad quickly took a corner and it was Dheeraj again, leaping past a slew of bodies and punching any hopes of the UAE club getting more than a point. The 20-year-old showed courage, and the man who first picked him as an 11-year-old was reminded of the spark he saw in Dheeraj then.
— Indian Football Team for World Cup (@IFTWC) April 30, 2021
“He had heart,” remembers Surendro Singh, a coach at the All Moirang Football Association academy. “We selected him in our academy in 2012. Within a year, he was already playing for the state team,” Dheeraj’s first coach told The Indian Express.
From there, it was a fairly rapid rise for Dheeraj. The AIFF academy in Kalyani came calling, and then the FIFA U-17 World Cup happened. During the tournament held in India, Singh’s stock rose considerably as he was recognised as one of the stand-out performers despite a short group-stage stint.
A trial at Scottish Premiership club Motherwell followed, but not much came of it. Now at FC Goa, two clean sheets in his first two games at the AFC Champions League have not just received attention from his own coaches, but also Asian elites.
A decent crop
Dheeraj is another quality goalkeeper the Indian football system has churned out in recent years.
With the national team facing a serious shortage when it comes to strikers and central defenders, a look at the goalkeeping situation is a welcome change.
Shanmugam Venkatesh, assistant coach of the national team, spoke about the growing role of a goalkeeper in modern football and how Dheeraj is a better custodian because of the attention provided from a younger age, something that didn’t happen earlier.
“Over the years, the role of technique and fitness has become extremely important for goalkeepers and the ’keeper is now required to be as fit as the outfield players. Now, things like fat percentage and training intensity are major factors for goalkeepers and technique-wise, ’keepers today are more sound and more comfortable with the ball at their feet,” Venkatesh told The Indian Express.
“With Indian football and clubs across India getting more and more professional, there are now specific coaches for goalkeepers. It is very important for them as goalkeeper training is different, with specific drills and requirements, and a player like Dheeraj getting such quality training right from the start is a very important factor in his development.”
Despite the better quality of goalkeepers at the disposal of the national team now, the Asian Champions League has shown the path to the next stage that these youngsters need to take.
In the Indian Super League, custodians are not expected to be quick on their feet.
A point regularly emphasised by FC Goa coach Juan Ferrando in Champions League press conferences was the Indian style of play, which is to take two, maybe three, touches on the ball before moving forward. The top teams in Asia rarely allow so much time on the ball, and that needs to be understood by all players, including the goalkeeper.
As the rest of the world cheered the saves made by FC Goa’s hero, Ferrando was quick to bring Singh down to earth, by pointing out where he needs more work. “Dheeraj made good saves.
He needs to improve passing because we play a style where we build up from the back,” the coach said, laying the blueprint for what’s next for a young goalie beginning to show his mettle in the big league.