Sahal Abdul Samad is one of the best Indian playmakers in the Indian Super League (ISL). That’s the popular belief, isn’t it? From Bhaichung Bhutia to Sunil Chhetri, almost everyone in the country with any football knowledge has already earmarked the youngster as the next big thing.
That, though, doesn’t make his mesmerising start to life in Indian football any less impressive. Within just two seasons in top-flight football for Kerala Blasters FC, Sahal is disproving the notion that only footballers with fancy foreign names can pull the strings for ISL teams. And, in a land where we don’t see a lot of creative attacking midfielders, capable of providing the goods for Sunil Chhetri and likes, Sahal could be creating the template for a new type of Indian attacker.
Blasters had initially picked him up for their reserves side after seeing him stand out for the state team in the Santosh Trophy. The idea was to ease him into a professional structure, something that Sahal had never experienced before, and slowly mould him into a potential future star. Little did anyone expect that his rise would be this fast and this meteoric.
With the reserves side, Sahal did what he does best — impress. It was no surprise when he was promoted to the senior team, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Kannur-boy quickly established himself in the first team making 17 appearances in his first season, mostly as an impact substitute who would turn the game on its heels. Again, it was no surprise when he walked away with both the ISL and All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) annual Emerging Player awards as well as the Football Players' Association of India's (FPAI) Fans' Player award.
A national call up would follow as newly-appointed head coach Igor Stimac was mightily excited with Sahal’s abilities. Even Chhetri, the country’s living legend, described him as an ‘extremely gifted talent’, ‘someone who excites’ him.
Last season, however, contrary to widespread expectations, Sahal could not really cement a place in Eelco Schattorie’s starting XI. Despite a bright start, where he made two assists in eight appearances, his performances faded as the season went on. The coach called him a ‘rough diamond’ who needed polishing, his off the ball play was criticised, and most questionable of all, he was asked to play in other positions to fill up for injured players.
The 23-year-old, though, is not too worried about it. “I am happy about my performance last season,” he tells The Bridge. “I believe I gave the best of my abilities to the team on the field. Last season was a very different experience for me since I was made to push my boundaries. On and off the pitch, I got to enhance my knowledge while working closely with a team where every player excelled in his position.”
“I am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming ISL season under our new coach Kibu Vicuna. I am sure all of us will definitely benefit from his vast experience in football,” Sahal continues, his words reverberating the confidence in his voice.
Thing is, he knows just how indebted he is to his club and to the league. He is a clear fan favourite in Kochi and although he has tempting offers from rival clubs, he most definitely wants to give back something to Blasters. “The opportunity to play in the ISL changed my life. Football gives me joy and I have always been very excited to play the sport. ISL gave me a platform to showcase my skills to a larger audience with no professional experience of football,” he says.
Sahal Abdul Samad (Source: ISL)
“I am very happy to be a part of Kerala Blasters, a club that focuses more on identifying young talents in India and creating opportunities for them. And sharing the dressing room with legends has definitely changed the way every Indian player looks at football. Their experience and tips motivate us to perform even better. A chance to experience professional football, right from the beginning of our careers is a huge advantage for players like me, especially to find a place in the Indian national team.”
Indeed, for their bet, Blasters got more than just a promising young midfielder with the standard poster boy haircut and a few body feints in his locker. Sahal has turned out to be a player ready, willing, and able to dictate the tempo of a game.
Watch him in action and you’ll see a young man constantly on the move. He finds space between defensive lines, making sure he’s always available to receive a pass, he demands to have the ball at his feet, always knowing what he wants to do with it. And what the budding Indian star wants to do is pick you apart. Sahal can either drop a shoulder and leave you for dead or find a hidden passing lane that no one else — especially not the defence — can even imagine. Failing that, he’ll just play a quick and simple pass and then take off again to keep the move alive.
You’ll also see quick half-turns as Sahal receives the ball, the sure sign of a player who is already aware of what is going on around him, sending would-be defenders the wrong way without even touching it.
His national team call-up back in 2019 was as much a reflection of the lack of creative spark in the national team as it was the impact Sahal was making. Don’t get it wrong, Anirudh Thapa and Brandon Fernandes are top quality, but Sahal is a different breed, he is that rarest of Indian talents.
Yes, he has to shed off that tag of “luxury” players — tricksters who could delight a crowd but couldn’t do the hard work of defending. He can become a fully-realised modern footballer, and when he does that, Sahal can be the creative No. 10 that India is looking for.
Next season could be the make or break season for Sahal. From 2020-21, the number of foreigners allowed in the ISL will be brought down, which means Indian players will be given more value. Sahal feels that there are both positive and negative aspects of the rule, but it will only help domestic players like himself to do better.
“Playing alongside foreign counterparts helps build our skill levels and also urges us to push ourselves to the best of our capabilities to match their competitiveness. However, the new rule will definitely create more opportunities for domestic players and give them more game time in the league. Greater the on-field experience, better are the chances for learning and improvement. This will also increase competition among domestic players for their respective positions, which will further better their game,” he concedes.
“Even though the lockdown has posed a lot of restrictions, I haven’t stopped training. However, it isn’t just me, everyone is training hard. I follow regular workouts and a strict diet program to make sure I am fit for the games.
“My ultimate aim like any other player is to bring the ISL title home and I hope to utilize my potential to the fullest to achieve this dream for the team, along with my teammates, under the guidance of the new coach. My mentality on and off the pitch is to always give my 100 per cent. I think being true to yourself is all that matters. And I am sure I will continue to do the same in future too,” Sahal concludes.