Strikers and center-backs are in short supply in India. These are the slots which have a special premium placed over it in Indian leagues, whether it is Indian Super League (ISL) or I-League. The demand of nimble-footed, skillful strikers and towering, imposing center-backs has forced clubs to dig deep into their pockets in search of overseas players. The demand for foreign stars has marginalised Indian hopefuls to full-back slots or attacking winger positions, leading to shaky defence and goal drought issues even for the national side.
The gravity of the situation could be understood from the fact that India coach Igor Stimac was forced to call up retired Anas Edathodika soon after his appointment to sort out the backline mess. However, there have been few shining light for the Blue Tigers. One of the most prominent names to make a case for himself has been the young Narender Gahlot.
After impressing at the age-group level and with Indian Arrows, Gahlot was called up to the national side along with Anas for the Intercontinental Cup in July last year. He made his debut against Tajikistan and soon soaked in adulation after scoring in his second game against Syria as India held on to a draw. With that goal, Gahlot also became the second youngest player to score an international goal for the Indian football team.
The adulation was well deserved for the then 18-year-old who had put behind a horrific ACL injury to carve out a route to the national side. Gahlot was destined for fame as a part of the historic under-17 side which played the 2017 World Cup at home but the injury ruled him out of the tournament.
"Not just for a footballer but for every sportsperson, the biggest dream is to represent your country in a World Cup. But sometimes we can't control everything," Gahlot told Firstpost. "My family members gave me a lot of support during that period. They told me I just need to continue working hard, the results will follow."
Hard work is the mantra to climb up the stairs of success in life and it was realised quite early in life by Gahlot as he made the switch from playing cricket to pursuing football professionally. He booked a spot for himself in Indian Arrows, an I-League side formed to nurture young talents, after missing out on the World Cup with successful trial.
"I struggled a lot in the first season as I was coming back from the injury. I took help of my coaches, Floyd Pinto sir helped me a lot as well and my performance improved," Gahlot said.
Twist in Gahlot's tale
After a difficult first season, the 19-year-old shined in the second with commanding performance at the back as ISL club Jamshedpur FC came calling for the services of the center-back for the ongoing season. With 10 ISL games under his belt so far and 880 minutes of toil on the pitch, Gahlot is one of the few teenagers to enjoy a consistent run in the ISL this season.
With Tiri, Memo and Joyner Lourence occupying the center-back slots at Jamshedpur, Gahlot has largely featured for the club at the left-back position, occasionally also filling in as a right-back. It's this versatility of the player which has impressed all his coaches ranging from Floyd, Stimac to Jamshedpur boss Antonio Iriondo.
Gahlot, however, was not always a defender, in fact he was looking to make it big as a midfielder. But fate had other ideas as football took a bizarre turn for the youngster.
"This change of my role is completely down to a chance. I used to play for IYSA (India Youth Soccer Association) academy in New Delhi and one day one of our defenders was missing, so I was asked to play as a center-back," said Gahlot. "My coach was quite impressed with my performance and continued to play me in the position. Even while playing for Indian Arrows, coach Floyd Pinto played me in defence including in full-back slots."
His story of taking up football is also no less interesting. Hailing from Najafgarh in New Delhi, football was quite low on priority for a young Gahlot. In the home of the legendary Virender Sehwag, cricket and wrestling continue to be the most popular sports, and Gahlot also took after his uncle who played cricket in his younger days.
"I was mad about cricket in the early days and there was no interest in football. It was a friend of mine who introduced me to the game. And since then it has been a different story. I travelled to Chandigarh to join the famous football academy, after that I also played for Sports Authority of India (SAI) Dehradun. It was a match between the SAI side and India U-16 team that got me selected into the Indian squad," Said Gahlot.
As Gahlot took interest in football, his uncle did everything possible to help his nephew achieve his "dream".
"My uncle has been the driving force behind me since my childhood. He use to be a cricket buff but could not pursue the sport because of lack of support. He wanted me to represent the country at the international level. I gave my first football trial barefoot, on the same day I was late to reach home. After my return, my uncle asked me about the delay and upon learning about the trial, he got me a new pair of shoes the very next day. My family has also given me full support to play football," Gahlot said.
Man on a mission
Destiny had its own part to play in Gahlot's early journey as a footballer but since then it has been all about his talent and hard work. The testament of which has been the effusive words of praise that Stimac showered on the Delhi lad during an interview on Facebook. Stimac labelled Gahlot as the "future" of Indian football. The words he used were no less laudatory — mindset, character, composure. When you speak to the youngster, the close understanding of the game and commitment is apparent. For someone like Gahlot, who has to constantly adapt to different positions and thwart challenges from highly experienced and skillful attackers, the preparation is the key. And it has to be meticulous.
— Jamshedpur FC (@JamshedpurFC) December 11, 2019
"You get the feel before the match in which position you are going to play. For me, before every game I try to learn about the attackers, their style of play, their positioning. The focus is generally on how I can stop them while they are mounting an attack," said Gahlot giving us a sneak peak into his preparations. "At a personal level, I try to catch up as many matches as possible from ISL to learn the movement of the strikers, the formations of opposing teams."
Apart from preparing for the opposition, Gahlot is also well aware of the faults in his game. He comes across as a determined yet a soft-natured person, something that he acknowledges. He knows as a center-back or a defender, he needs to cultivate the leadership quality to excel as a footballer.
"My focus is on giving my best on the pitch. A lot of times I end up miss passing a ball because I lose concentration or end up taking things easy. I need to sharpen my focus. My marking needs to also improve," said Gahlot.
"A centre-back also has the whole picture of the pitch from the back. And it's important for him to be vocal, to guide the team. I am also developing that quality in myself. I need to be more vocal, to dish out directives and organise the defence. The work on it is going on with our goalkeeper coach at Jamshedpur."
Football wasn't the road which Gahlot wanted to take initially but he's driving in top gear on the highway for a while now, albeit with a few hiccups at the start. And with the right mixture of hard work, experience, attitude and learning, he could very well be the answer to India's defensive woes.
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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2020 12:48:13 IST