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If one had followed the AFC U16 Championship closely, one would have witnessed a young kid flying left and right between the sticks. That young kid, Niraj Kumar, was India's standout performer over the course of the tournament. Niraj was the brightest spark in an Indian team which almost accomplished Indian Football team's greatest feat- qualifying for a FIFA tournament on merit. Somewhat surprisingly, the youngster has been the latest gifted goalkeeper to pop-up at the international scene; which leads one to believe that something special is going on between the sticks for India.
Down the Memory LaneOver the years, the Indian football team has seen some really talented custodians take up the mantle between the posts. Subrata Pal made a name for himself in the goal more than a decade ago. The Bengal-born goalkeeper set the precedent for years to come, by quickly establishing himself as one of the best players to come out of the Indian system. Pal has been active since 2004, but it wasn't until 2007 that his abilities were truly noticed. Picked up by East Bengal, the Indian international proved to be a great signing. What made it even better for the Red-and-Golds was the fact, that their club had snatched Pal from fierce rivals, Mohun Bagan. Subrata Pal made a name for himself in the goal more than a decade ago 2007 was a big year for the former-Indian no. 1, as he made his competitive debut for the senior team. That same year, Pal and his heroics helped India win the Nehru Cup for the very first time; earning the praise of the entire nation. However, his best international performance till date came four years later, at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, when he made more than thirty-five saves, with sixteen coming in one game! Moreover, Pal's talent was given a substantial validation when he was picked up by Danish club FC Vestsjaelland; making him one of the few Indian footballers to move abroad.
European ExploitsSubrata Pal's immediate successor to the Indian National team has turned out to be Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. While highly talented in his own right, Sandhu has not yet reached the legendary status of Pal. There can be no doubts, however, that he is well-and-truly on his way. Like his predecessor, the youngster's services were availed by East Bengal at one point. And like his predecessor, he also made the trip abroad to play for a European club. Norwegian club Stabaek put Sandhu under contract in 2014 and also handed him a UEFA Europa League start. Gurpreet Singh (Image: Times of India) Still on the younger side of things, 26-year-old Sandhu only established himself as India's no. 1 during their 2018 World Cup qualifier run. The youngster emerged as a bright spark in an otherwise lacklustre campaign and made the goalkeeping position his own. Since then, Sandhu has become one of the first names on the teamsheets for India, with his performances indicating why. Still 26, it is fair to say that Sandhu will be occupying the goalkeeping position for years to come. However, if there is to be any replacement, India has some good young talent waiting in the wings such as Vishal Kaith, Amrinder Singh, and Lalthuammawia Ralte. However, the one who is seen as the long-term replacement for Sandhu is 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup star, Dheeraj Singh Moiranghtem.
Beaming in Britain (Almost)Dheeraj's best performances came at the FIFA U17 World Cup itself, as it was the first time that the youngster truly garnered attention. He was one of the standout performers of the team which had made it through to a FIFA event for the very first time. The 18-year-old's displays caught the attention of several international scouts, and he was called up for a trial by the Scottish club Motherwell FC. Unfortunately for Dheeraj, work permit issues led to a breakdown in any potential move. Nevertheless, he is now employed by ISL club Kerala Blasters and made his first competitive appearance for the club recently, keeping a clean sheet in the process. Dheeraj's best performances came at the FIFA U17 World Cup itself, as it was the first time that the youngster truly garnered attention. All the aforementioned names have one thing in common. They have all played or nearly played, for an international club. This means that out of all the Indian players to ply their trade outside the country, goalkeepers make up almost fifty per cent. There is another, lesser-known, goalkeeper to have played for a European club. It is quite ironic then, that she has played for the biggest club on the list. Aditi Chauhan was picked up by the West Ham United Ladies team in 2015. She had garnered attention while playing for Loughborough University team, earning her a move to the Hammers Ladies. She made her competitive debut for them in 2016 and went on to play for them, for the next two years. Aditi Chauhan was picked up by the West Ham United Ladies team in 2015. During this time she also won several accolades with the Indian Women's national team, with the SAFF Cup and the South Asian Games Gold medal amongst them.
Next in Line...And we are back to where we started, talking about the exploits of a young boy who is perhaps destined for greatness - Niraj Kumar. When it comes to the U16 team, Niraj wasn't always the first pick of coach Bibiano Fernandes. It is only fair, that the coach will keep rotating his players to ensure a uniform development. However, it was during the AFC U16 Championship that Niraj truly established himself as India U16's no. 1. Statistically, the youngster had a superb tournament as he kept three clean sheets in four matches. Niraj further raised his stock when he saved a penalty in India's second match against Iran, which proved to be a key factor in India's quarterfinal run. Moreover, he conceded only one goal in the entire tournament. Unfortunately, that one goal proved to be the knockout blow for India. However, football is not all maths and statistics. Niraj's real quality shone during his performance on the pitch. The youngster showed a maturity far beyond his age; in his positioning and mental awareness. Watching the highlight reel, one would find Niraj's saves quite ordinary. But it was his excellent positioning which made his every save look easy. It is unfair, however, to judge the youngster so early in his career. However, with the signs he has displayed so far, one can only dream of a wonderful future. In conclusion, the last decade or so has seen a power position emerge in the Indian football team. While the rest of the team is also progressing steadily towards a better future, it is fair to say that the goalkeepers are leading the charge. With the current crop of goalkeepers and with those set to follow, would it be unfair to say that the present and the future of Indian football is in safe hands?