Independence Day special: Indian football's inspiring tales from 2018-19
Fifteenth August is a red-letter day for India, marking the nation's independence after almost two centuries of intense struggle and sacrifice. In essence, it's a day to celebrate and remember the past and take the inspiration to work towards a brighter and better future. To mark the nation's 73rd Independence Day, we list down some of Indian football's most inspirational tales from the past year.
Bheke overcomes personal tragedy to realize dreams
2019 began on a sombre note for Bengaluru FC defender Rahul Bheke, with the passing of his father in January. The Mumbai-born player, however, overcame his personal tragedy in emphatic fashion and soared high to score the winning goal in the Hero ISL 2018-19 final against FC Goa late in Extra Time. The 28-year-old then realised a life-long dream, making his national team debut under new India head coach Igor Stimac at the prestigious King's Cup tournament in Thailand.
A hero's homecoming for Sahal
Having spent most of his childhood in UAE, Sahal Abdul Samad returned to his roots in Kerala for his college degree and the homecoming kickstarted a dream which may very well turn out to be something special. After joining Kerala Blasters back in 2017, the young midfielder's reputation has been skyrocketing steadily, but over the last year, the 22-year-old not only established himself as Kerala's hero but also the collective toast of the nation. A brilliant Hero ISL 2018-19 campaign saw him named as the ISL Emerging Player of the Season. The ball-playing midfielder then went on to earn a debut for the national team and capped it off with the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) Men's Emerging Footballer of The Year 2019 award. Sahal has impressed highly so far, and the coming years can very well see him develop as a talisman for the nation on the global footballing stage.
The future is here: Narender Gahlot announces himself
For 18-year-old Narender Gahlot, it was a rocky start to his international career as he made his debut in the Hero Intercontinental Cup 2019 opener against Tajikistan, which the Blue Tigers lost 2-4. The youngster got his second opportunity to don the India shirt in the side's third outing of the competition against the mighty Syria and this time, he impressed and how. Narender showed immense character, putting up a solid showing at the back and scored his maiden international goal. The Jamshedpur FC man didn't only bag the Player of the Match in the process but also became the first player born in the 21st century to score for the Indian national team. There's surely a lot more to come from the promising centre back.
Adil's grit and passion perseveres against all odds
Having made his international debut against Azerbaijan way back in 2012, Adil Khan had to wait for over seven years for his second India cap. A severe ligament injury ahead of the 2014-15 campaign sidelined the hard-tackling midfielder for almost two years and threatened to end his career prematurely. But Adil, much like his demeanour on the field, never gave up and continued toiling hard to carve out a comeback trail through crippling adversities. He returned to the football pitch in 2016 and after stints at Lonestar Kashmir and Churchill Brothers, joined FC Pune City ahead of the 2017-18 Hero ISL campaign. The Goa-born midfielder proved his worth for the Stallions over two seasons and all his hard work bore fruit in June this year with Igor Stimac including him in the India squad for the King's Cup. Adil seems to have already established himself as an integral part of Stimac's setup and is expected to play a major role in the Indian team in the coming years.
Sunil Chhetri keeps the Indian flag flying high
Captain, leader, legend, Sunil Chhetri has been the talisman for Indian football for years now and despite turning 35 earlier this year, the ace striker has shown no signs of slowing down. Having led his club Bengaluru FC to the Hero ISL title earlier this year, India's highest goal scorer scripted history yet again as he usurped Argentina legend Lionel Messi to become the second-highest active international goal scorer in the world. Chhetri scored his 69th and 70th goal for the Blue Tigers in the Hero Intercontinental Cup 2019 opener against Tajikistan to go past Messi. Currently with 71 goals to his name, Chhetri sits between two global superstars - Lionel Messi (68 goals) and Cristiano Ronaldo (88 goals) in the list of top active goal scorers in international football.
NorthEast's home-grown policy comes good
The Hero ISL 2018-19 season was a special one for NorthEast United FC as the team reached the semi-finals of the Hero ISL for the first time in their history. The Highlanders' ploy to rely heavily on young talents from the region is a unique take on developing football in the Northeast and in extension, the country. The policy has been highly appreciated by the fandom and the years of hard work put behind it finally materialized on the league table last term. The most encouraging part of the campaign was the emergence of some brilliant young talents like Redeem Tlang and Lalthathanga Khawlhring, who showed immense ability and shouldered the fans' aspirations with impeccable poise and class.
Mandar's India dream comes true
Mandar Rao Dessai has been at the forefront of India's domestic football for quite some time now. Highly regarded by former FC Goa head coach and Brazilian legend Zico, Mandar has enjoyed a very fruitful career, particularly in the Hero ISL, helping FC Goa to the final twice. However, despite his accomplishments on the club level the Goa-born player always found himself on the fringes of the national team. The so-close yet so-far affair finally ended during the Hero Intercontinental Cup 2019 as he donned the national team jersey for the first time at the age of 27. The cap, however, didn't come easy for Mandar, who had to consistently reinvent himself and his game to make himself worthy. Primarily a winger and an attacking midfielder, he reworked his game under Sergio Lobera at FC Goa and adapted himself to excel as a left back - the position he took on during his India debut.
It has been an inspiring year for Indian football and surely, there’s a lot more to come. A very Happy Independence Day to every proud Indian across the world.