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Indian football’s top young talents to watch out for in 2020 — Nongdamba Naorem

As Indian prospects continue to scrounge for appearances at their clubs, Nongdamba could prove to be less of a courageous anomaly and more of a trendsetter.

Indian football’s top young talents to watch out for in 2020 — Nongdamba Naorem


Published: 28 April 2020 3:14 PM GMT

With football coming to a standstill, and the season effectively coming to an end, The Bridge takes a look at the brightest young prospects of Indian football over the next one week or so. After Sumit Rathi, we take a look at rising sensation, Nongdamba Naorem who helped Mohun Bagan clinch the I-League title.

It’s a very good time to be a fan of Indian football. The Indian Super League (ISL) might be at its highest level in years, and its top teams are legitimately expected to make a mark in Asia sooner rather than later. The men’s national team has been progressing slowly but surely under Igor Stimac, and the women, led by the path-breaking Bala Devi, are also doing quite well for themselves.

Even more exciting, however, is the performance of the Indian youngsters in recent times. The U-17 team that played in the FIFA World Cup were the crown jewel of 2017, featuring a squad full of attacking verve and players like Komal Thatal, KP Rahul, and Aniket Jadhav. After the World Cup, when most of the squad stayed together to play as the Indian Arrows in the I-League, it seemed as if the youth movement was well and truly on in India.

However, only a few from that prospective batch have been able to gain a foothold in senior football yet. More often than not, these youngsters get lost along the way. But not Nongdamba Naorem.

Nongdamba or Nong, as he is affectionately called by his peers, is one of the young footballers who has changed everything. His dazzling transformation in the recently concluded season at Mohun Bagan, from a frustrated talent in the national team youth setup to one of the most coveted teenagers in Indian football, Nongdamba has fundamentally changed the entire conversation around many of Indian football’s most gifted youngsters.

naorem Nongdamba Naorem (Source: AIFF)

Originally a DSK Shivajians Academy product who subsequently spent his growing years at Minerva Punjab and at the national team’s youth setup, Nongdamba made the jump to Kerala Blasters in 2018, only months after the U-17 World Cup. However, with so much competition, he never quite made the cut for the Indian Super League (ISL) matchday squad.

Moreover, he was more of an impact player for coaches, who saw him as someone who could turn any game after coming off the bench but was not fit enough to persist through 90 minutes. At DSK, Minerva and at the national youth team, he was mostly used as a second half substitute. Soon, Kerala came calling after Nongdamba as he scored his first I-League goal, a beauty with the winger dribbling past a flurry of outstretched defenders before producing a clinical finish, against Shillong Lajong FC.

“Nongdamba is very intelligent, he has got a calm head, good technical abilities. We never doubted his technical abilities, his first I-League goal is a testament to that. But he was always an impact player for us, he didn’t have the physicality to last 90 minutes on the pitch,” explained his former coach Floyd Pinto, who worked with him closely during his India U-17 and Indian Arrows days.

Naturally, the young teenager would crave more playing time. And in search of that, he made the wisest move of his career thus far by joining Mohun Bagan on a loan move from Blasters. “He is smart, so when he saw he was not getting the opportunities at Blasters, he made a choice. For him, it was just about getting the right environment, the right coach,” said Pinto.


Bagan, blooded him quickly, giving him the chance to express himself in the Calcutta Football League (CFL), a challenge he relished. Nongdamba’s I-League debut for Bagan came in the very first gameweek, and he hasn’t looked back since. He started all of Bagan’s 16 matches of the truncated 2019-20 I-League season, finishing with two goals and five assists. Aiding this superb performance of Nongdamba from behind was Spanish head coach Kibu Vicuna, who played a critical role in his success.

“This last season, here in Kolkata, was great for me,” Nongdamba admitted in an interview with The Bridge last week. “I have been able to play most of the games and by God’s grace, I have done pretty well on the field. So, for me it was a pretty good experience. I take it as a step forward in my career. After coming to Mohun Bagan I learned a lot of things on and off the field and the most important is I became more mature than before,” he added.

In the next season, the 20-year-old will be back at Blasters, a squad where the competition for a first XI spot will be way tougher. However, fortunately for him, Vicuna, the man under whom he spread his wings, has been roped in by the Kochi-based side. Not only Vicuna, his support staff will also be there.

“Nongdamba’s playing style is similar to European players,” said Pinto. “Even Kibu has said that, so that rawness is there. He has improved massively on the physical aspect and is able to play week in and out. It’s a good thing he will be working with Vicuna and his support staff next season again.”


Indeed, Nongdamba will be in a familiar environment at the least. But he knows he will have his task cut out. “I can’t take it as an advantage. Rather, it’s a privilege for me as the coach (Vicuna) understands me well and he will continue with me at Blasters. It doesn’t mean that just because I was his player in Mohun Bagan and I will continue to be in the starting XI next year. I have to face a lot of competition at Kerala Blasters because there are a lot of better players than me. I can’t be sitting around and I need to continue working hard to get into the team,” the Manipuri youngster said.

Many players have trouble breaking through in ISL clubs like ATK FC. The best Indian and foreign stars play in these clubs. Do you really expect teenagers to jump ahead of players like Edu Garcia, Roy Krishna, David Williams, or Prabir Das?

While Nongdamba may or may not have foreseen this, his move to the I-League certainly circumvented such a problem. The I-League, while not at its highest level this year, is still a platform very much capable of turning prospects into full professionals. There aren’t a lot of coaches at India’s highest levels that put immediate stock in untested players, but Vicuna proved that he is willing, at least.

Players need real, meaningful minutes to develop. Otherwise you get players like Komal Thatal, Boris Singh Moirangthem, who, at 20 years old, have talent and could potentially be stars, but are wasting on the vine at ATK as the near constant ebb and flow of superstars coming and going continually push them down the pecking order. One has to wonder how the story might have been different if they found meaningful minutes to grow and demonstrate their abilities.

The attractions of the cash-rich ISL are strong, and not all players want to move to the I-League to advance their own careers. For some, the dream of playing for the big clubs in the top flight informs their decisions. But Nongdamba has shown there can be another way. There is a clear path back to the ISL for those who make the move to the ‘second division’, ie. the I-League.

As Indian prospects continue to scrounge for appearances at their clubs, Nongdamba might be less of a courageous anomaly and more of a trendsetter.

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