Six newcomers who will look to impress during King’s Cup
The Indian national football team is all set to compete in the 47th edition of the King’s Cup, which gets underway from June 5. The Blue Tigers are scheduled to face Curacao while hosts Thailand take on Vietnam on the opening day, with the winners of the two matches facing off in the final on June 8. This is the first tournament India will play under the stewardship of new head coach Igor Stimac. After naming an initial 37-man squad for the preparatory camp, the Croat has trimmed it down to 23. The final squad includes six newcomers - Rahul Bheke, Brandon Fernandes, Raynier Fernandes, Michael Soosairaj, Sahal Abdul Samad and Amarjit Singh. Here’s a look at their journey, recent performances and what we can expect from the six in the upcoming tournament.
Starting his professional career back in 2011 with Air India, Bheke has now represented seven clubs across the Hero ISL and Hero I-League. A strong, hard-tackling defender, Bheke mostly plies his trade as a right-back but is comfortable filling in at centre back as well. It was back in 2014 when he really started making a name for himself. Bengaluru FC signed him on a long-term contract in 2017 and the ploy turned out to be a masterstroke. Defensively reliable and a threat going forward, he really won over the fans with his impressive runs into the final third. In last season’s Hero ISL, he contributed with 3 goals and an assist, including the all-important winning goal for the Blues in the final against FC Goa. It was his attacking instinct which saw him finally being called up to the national team under new boss Igor Stimac after being omitted from the squad for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 by former head coach Stephen Constantine - a decision that was criticized by the fans and questioned by Sunil Chhetri himself. Fans can rejoice as the lad from Mumbai will finally get his chance to impress in the national kit. A well-deserved call up, be it at the ripe age of 28.
Hailing from Goa, Brandon started his footballing journey at a very young age. After representing a couple of local football academies, he was enrolled into the ASD Football Academy in Cape Town, South Africa. His performances attracted interest from the likes of Leicester City, Reading and Sunderland, but none eventually materialized into a move. On his return to India, he signed for Sporting Goa in the Hero I-League back in 2015. Over the next few years he went on to represent the likes of Mumbai City FC, Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers and most recently, playing an integral role in Sergio Lobera’s FC Goa side which reached the Hero ISL 2018-19 final. A brilliant attacking midfielder capable of playing on either wing, Brandon is considered by many as one of the most exciting players in the current squad. He is also a proven set piece specialist and is known for weaving his magic to win matches almost singlehandedly. Even in the star-studded FC Goa side, he was one of the main driving forces behind their run the final. Indian fans can surely expect him to carry a substantial goal threat.
Another lad from Mumbai, Raynier Fernandes is a tough-tackling box to box midfielder who has become a fan favourite among Mumbai City FC fans in a very short time. The youngster will now be looking to establish himself in the national side as well. Having represented Mohun Bagan in the past, the 23-year-old has the experience of playing both in the Hero I-League and the Hero ISL. Already regarded as one of the best players in the Mumbai City FC squad, Raynier works tirelessly in the middle of the park and allows the attacking players the freedom to impose themselves on matches. A solid defensive midfielder, he can also be a goal threat from distance. Raynier definitely has the talent to become a mainstay in the national setup for years to come.
Soosairaj is a skilful winger who loves cutting in form the left and curling in shots into the far corner - an ability he demonstrated time and again during Hero ISL 2018-19. The 24-year-old, born in Tamil Nadu, has played for various teams based out of Chennai. His performances for Chennai City FC in Hero I-League 2017-18 earned him the best midfielder award and paved the way for a move to Hero ISL side Jamshedpur FC last season. His impressive performances for the Miners saw two-time Hero ISL champions ATK sign him up on a long-term contract after the season ended. He was an integral part of the Jamshedpur team and bagged 4 goals in 14 appearances. Soosairaj may turn out to be a great fit for Stimac’s style of play and is expected to make his debut in the upcoming King’s Cup. A threat from out wide, he can hold the by-line to put in crosses or cut-in and shoot. His clever movement off the ball can also help in pulling defenders out of position and create space for his teammates.
Sahal Abdul Samad
The 22-year-old is a hard-working attack-minded midfielder. Hailing from Kannur, he was one of the shining beacons for Kerala Blasters FC last season, in what was otherwise a forgetful campaign for the Kochi-based club. The youngster impressed fans and pundits alike with his confident displays in the middle of the park. He is known for putting in the hard yards and works tirelessly to enforce a high press with the intent to win the ball back as close to the opposition goal as possible. He was named the ISL Emerging Player of the Year for 2018-19 and earned a long-term contract with Kerala by the virtue of his stellar performances from last season. His accomplishments certainly didn't go unnoticed and the youngster was included in Stimac's final 23-man squad for the upcoming tournament. Sahal possesses quick feet and a bagful of tricks to beat his man, making him a nightmare to defend against. Likened to Mesut Ozil by the Kerala Blasters fans for his style of play, he is surely one to keep an eye out for in Thailand.
Another exciting player in the touring squad to Thailand is 18-year-old Amarjit Singh. Amarjit is a well-known name among Indian football fans, having captained the U-17 national side during the FIFA U-17 World Cup back in 2017. The midfield dynamo plied his trade for the Indian Arrows in the Hero I-League for the past two seasons. Having been an integral part of the Arrows development side, he seems ready to make the step up and was recently snapped up by Hero ISL side Jamshedpur FC on a long-term deal. It is unlikely that he will get a lot of game time in the upcoming King’s Cup, but being around the national team would be a great experience for the youngster and prepare him for an inevitable role in the national team in the coming years.