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Kerala's golden boy Sahal Abdul Samad comes of age

Marked as India's best young footballer three years ago, Kerala Blasters' Sahal Abdul Samad is finally living up to the promise. In an exclusive conversation, he recounts an ISL season that had both his best and worst moments.

Keralas golden boy Sahal Abdul Samad comes of age

Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 2022-04-12T15:22:37+05:30

The most frequently asked question in Indian football for the last few years has been, 'Who after Chhetri?'

The most frequent answer to that has been Sahal Abdul Samad - the 25-year-old who moved from UAE to Kerala for a college degree around 8 years ago, but who has since then ended up becoming Indian football's biggest hope.

But in the two ISL seasons after being named the 'Emerging Player' in 2018/19, Kerala's golden boy did not live up to the promise. Till this year, when he became the first ever Indian player to score six goals in a season for Kerala Blasters.

"In every way, this season was my best yet. The best part was how confident I felt. The trust showed in me by the coach and my teammates helped me play freely, I think that's why I could do so well," Samad told The Bridge.

"I hope next season is even better. Nothing changes. The hard work, the hustle, it all continues," he said.

Samad chipped in with goals at crucial stages of the season - like in the semifinal vs Jamshedpur - as KBFC reached an ISL final after four years of languishing in the bottom half. But it is the volleyed goal he scored in the second match of the season vs Mumbai City FC he remembers as his best moment.

"I'm still replaying it in my mind, I think it'll always be there. That was a special goal for me, it changed the whole atmosphere of the match," he said.

'Still getting over ISL final heartbreak'

But it was not just on the pitch that Samad grew in stature this season. Even off the field, Samad was one of the Kerala Blasters players keeping the mood light in the team hotel. His Puma shoes drying on his balcony was an invitation for any teammate to drop in for a chat.

"The players who were coming into the bubble for the first time had it hard. But we helped them settle in, we had fun inside the bubble in whatever way we could, we played small games that helped us in keeping our minds cool," Samad said.

Samad might have had the best season of his career so far, but this year also had his biggest heartbreak yet. To miss out on the final vs Hyderabad FC with an injury, and to then watch his team lose on penalties from the bench brought him to tears at the final whistle.

Losing his smile for the only time during the interaction, he said: "It would be heartbreaking for any player. I'm still getting over it."

"The first thing I did after the bubble was broken was to leave the team hotel and meet my parents, who had come down to Goa to watch the final," he said.

KBFC scouts then, Blackburn Rovers scouts now

Samad is just four matches away from overtaking Sandesh Jhingan as the most capped player for Kerala Blasters. While he is contracted to the club till 2025, there have been numerous enquiries about him. Last week, he was linked to a move to English side Blackburn Rovers.

Samad said, "Kerala Blasters means everything to me. They spotted me at the Santosh Trophy and helped me become a good player. It would be great to go for a 2-3 week training stint with a club abroad at some point. But right now I'm a Blasters player."

From dribbling through parking lots after school hours in the UAE, to the seven-a-side tournaments in Kerala, to the ISL and the Indian football team, Sahal's shoulder drops and ballet dancer turns have captivated all those who have watched him - from KBFC scouts to scouts of English clubs.

"Dribbling has always been easy for me...Sahal means easy," he said.

After years of promise, the golden kid is finally gracefully easing into the role ordained for him - the flagbearer of Indian football.

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