India were trailing Colombia 1-0 in a crucial group stage encounter at the 2017 U-17 World Cup. As the game entered in its dying minutes, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium erupted with euphoria after a precise, in-swinging corner produced India’s equaliser, their first-ever goal at a FIFA World Cup. Unfortunately for Indians they never got on the scoresheet again in the tournament, which makes the man who took the corner kick the solitary player to set up a World Cup goal for India.
The player in question is 19-year-old left-back Sanjeev Stalin, who hit the headlines recently after securing a move to CD Aves in Portuguese football’s top division. Stalin’s move could turn out to be a watershed moment for Indian footballers aspiring to ply their trade abroad. While a number of Indians have represented foreign clubs before, Stalin has the golden chance to become the first to consolidate his position in an overseas league of bona fide repute.
The journey from Bangalore (where Stalin was born) to the Portuguese Primeira Liga has not been an easy one. Stalin was born to parents who ran a small garment shop, and access to the high echelons of football was never going to be handed to him on a silver platter.
Stalin’s remarkable talent was first spotted by Iranian coach Jamshid Nassiri, who encouraged Stalin to hone his skills at a football academy. In due course, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) Elite Academy picked up Stalin and he became a vital cog of India’s contingent at youth-level tournaments. One of the few players to have impressed at the 2017 U-17 World Cup in India, Stalin had also starred a year earlier for his country, scoring a sensational free-kick against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship.
Following the U-17 World Cup, Stalin made a step up to represent Indian Arrows in the I-League and shone on his debut against Chennai City, helping the Arrows cruise to a 3-0 win. Although he is yet to feature for India’s senior team, Stalin has gathered considerable experience over two seasons in the I-League, and had been training for four months with CD Aves, before his switch to Portuguese football became official.
Accurate and agile with the ball at his feet, Stalin is a modern-day full-back who possesses the requisite endurance and intelligence to romp down the flank across 90 minutes while maintaining the desirable balance between defence and attack. Moreover, with his set-piece speciality, Stalin can make the dead ball come alive from corners and free-kicks- a valuable weapon in his arsenal that will only accentuate his appeal in European football.
Primed for Portugal
CD Aves are not the most glamorous team in Portugal’s top flight. In fact, at the time of writing, Aves find themselves rock-bottom of the Primeira Liga and firmly in contention for relegation. Having said that, Stalin is now in a position to pit himself against some of European football’s fiercest names, with continental heavyweights like FC Porto and SL Benfica operating in the same league as Aves. In order to make it to Aves’ first team, Stalin would have to navigate his way through the reserves- the u19s and u23s- as necessitated in his two-year contract.
While it would be naïve to expect Stalin to fast-track his progress through the secondary sides at Aves and champion his new club to safety on the points table, Aves’ relatively diminished resources mean that moving through the ranks might be simpler than at a bigger Portuguese outfit. Big things were expected of current Indian captain Sunil Chhetri after he announced his arrival at Sporting Lisbon in 2012. But the diminutive forward struggled to break through the B teams amidst a packed pool of talent, and was loaned to Churchill Brothers in India, where his move became permanent.
Since 1936, when Mohamed Salim became the first Indian to play abroad by signing for Scottish giants Celtic, a dishearteningly low number of Indian footballers have been able to land a move overseas. Salim himself left Scotland soon after joining, complaining of homesickness. The likes of Bhaichung Bhutia and Subrata Pal struggled to find their feet in European football (for English team Bury and Danish club Vestsjaeland, respectively) and had to return home in search of meaningful playing time. Before his move to Sporting, Chhetri had an excursion in the Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States, representing Kansas City, for whom he even featured in a friendly against Manchester United, before the same issue of a dearth of minutes cut short his journey, too. Arguably, the only Indian to have had some measure of success on foreign shores is Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, with the goalkeeper enjoying a decent couple of years at Norwegian club Stabaek, becoming in the process the first Indian to compete in the UEFA Europa League.
Stalin, however, has a couple of advantages none of these players has enjoyed. Firstly, he is just 19, meaning he is still developing and is far from approaching the prime of his career- time is well and truly on Stalin’s side. Secondly, and perhaps, more crucially, Stalin has joined a not-so illustrious club in an illustrious league, presenting himself with the potential paradox of facing less competition within his own team and more competition within the league, which could be the perfect launchpad for the freewheeling full-back.
A Harbinger of change
Indian footballers have always faced a deck full of odds whenever they have cast aside the relative mediocrity of India’s domestic competitions for greener pastures abroad. Fitness, temperament, and technique have long been their triad of undoing. With Stalin, though, all these three aspects seem in good shape. Part of the first generation of footballers to receive excellent training facilities at Indian academies, Stalin is as much a product of India’s rising footballing infrastructure as he is of his inherent merit. His unique position in Indian football’s slow but certain transformation makes Stalin a strong candidate to be a catalyst of change, a precedent for those coming through to take inspiration from, making the migration of Indian footballers to the world’s leading leagues a norm in the years to come. While there is every reason to be hopeful of Stalin, it is equally important to temper the excitement with caution, appreciating how far Stalin has come before taking stock of how far he has left to go.
The sight of an Indian footballer lifting the UEFA Champions League may still be a distant destination, but by making waves in the quaint Portuguese municipality of Santo Tirso, Sanjeev Stalin has set the wheels in motion.