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. First in this series is ISL's Emerging Player of the Year, Sumit Rathi of ATK FC.
When Sumit Rathi was first brought into Indian Super League (ISL) franchise ATK FC’s first team by Antonio Lopes Habas, the instructions for him were pretty straightforward. Hold a position on the left side of the defence, provide security against aerial threats and keep everything else simple.
For a young player, coming into the team with all that raw robustness and dynamism, such tailored objectives must have felt strange.
At 18, your blood is boiling. As a defender, where one mistake could result in heartbreaking defeat, it is far more amplified — you just want to go and make that crunching tackle. And on top of it, it is unchartered territory for you. Of course, you have waited your whole life for this moment, to play top-flight football, but you never know what to expect.
Naturally, you are a bit nervous, a bit timid and the worst thing you can do on your debut is probably fade into the background. You might do everything right, from making the tackles to retaining possession, but if you are concentrating on not making a fool of yourself on the big stage, then you simply won’t make an impression. It is a red flag, especially at a club as relentlessly demanding of success as ATK.
A coach like Habas would want to see a young player having the self belief in his own abilities. And Sumit did.
The Muzaffarnagar-born defender showed in his very first match just how much talent he has. Brought on after the half time break as a replacement for Anas Edathodika in a crucial away fixture against Odisha FC, Sumit did not have a lot of time to think. He must have been tense, but that never showed in his performance as he tormented Odisha’s forwards through the second half with his timely interceptions and strong tackles. Bold, unflustered, composed — Sumit personified all three adjectives as he put on a show.
It wasn’t supposed to happen so suddenly. While ATK understood they had a hidden gem on their hands before he even joined the senior team, the initial plan was for Sumit to challenge Salam Ranjan Singh and Ricky Lallamawma as the club’s second-choice centre-back and left-back this season. And then, possibly fight for a first-choice spot from 2020-21 onwards. Sumit, like the other Indian Arrows graduates in the squad, was intended to develop gradually and with time, integrate into the first team.
His explosive arrival surprised nearly everyone, except for his former teammates who played with him for the U18s and Reserves last season, and Deggie Cardozo, the reserves coach.
“When I had seen Sumit first, I had a feeling that he would be a good player. There was a lot of potential but I knew he needed to be nurtured. Now, when I see he is performing on the biggest stage, it's a great satisfaction for me as a coach,” Deggie tells this reporter.
“He has grown a lot since the time he arrived here from Indian Arrows. He can play in multiple positions now. He can be paired with anyone. Playing with and against top players has helped him a lot in his game. His game reading has also improved,” the coach adds.
Indeed, not for a single time did Sumit look like he would waiver. After the Odisha game, he had to wait three games to get another run in but once he proved his worth against Hyderabad FC and Bengaluru FC, he was ostensibly first-choice left-back or left-centre-back in Habas’ three-man defence line. His best performance came in the crucial away fixture against Mumbai where he consolidated the hype around him by walking away with a combustible Man of the Match performance.
It wasn’t long before he became one of the first names on the team sheet, and being the useful defensive outlet that he is, ATK began to develop something of a reliance on him as the league entered its final stages. It made sense for Habas — when you have such a calm, composed and yet aggressive defender, so sharp in those last-moment tackles with that aerial dominance, why not use him as frequently as possible?
“On the field, he is a calm and composed defender,” says Deggie. “But I will mention another thing that sets him apart from other players, that is his modesty. He is still very down to earth. He came through U18 and Reserve ranks before getting promoted to the senior team. But he didn't forget his roots.”
That is possibly the biggest compliment a youngster can get. Sumit is confident on the ball, rarely mistimes his tackles, nor is he caught out of position often. Even then, he makes up for it with his pace and terrific recovery time. In simpler words, Sumit is not exactly a diamond who needs polishing. He is already a pretty intelligent and humble footballer, despite only having turned 18 in August last year and with just 14 senior appearances to his name. When ATK won the title in Goa, he was very much a vital member and not just a benchwarmer.
At times, he did make a couple of mistakes — which will be reflected on as mere blips in an otherwise outstanding first season. However, if anything, the teenager has taken every challenge in his stride, coping comfortably with each new test. He held his own in a squad full of experienced, big-name defenders and made a place for himself.
Needless to say, Indian football fans have, helplessly, fallen in love with Sumit’s enthusiasm and energy and have already dubbed him as the next Sandesh Jhingan. Will he be able to fulfill all the expectations?
“He has huge potential to go to the next level. There is a lack of good centre-backs in India now in the national team and I think he can fill that gap. It's just his first season. Future seasons will only make him a better player,” believes Deggie.