Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2019-20 showed that ATK FC’s young defender Sumit Rathi has a bright future ahead following a brilliant breakthrough season at the club. The Muzaffarnagar-born centre-back showed immense maturity in defence for the Kolkata-based club and played a pivotal role in the latter stages of their Hero ISL success. His sturdy presence in ATK’s back line and consistent quality outings earned him the Hero ISL Emerging Player of the League award.

In a season which saw several youngsters announce themselves on Indian football's biggest stage, Rathi’s performances stood taller than the rest. The youngster was a permanent member in Antonio Lopez Habas’ back three alongside Pritam Kotal and John Johnson in the second half of the season. He earned big plaudits for his matured displays despite his tender age.

Clocking over 1000 minutes in his first full season in the Hero ISL, the 18-year-old played 14 matches and accounted for a massive 115 clearances and 27 tackles while boasting a commendable passing accuracy of 73.97%. In the Hero ISL final against Chennaiyin FC, Rathi was one of the unsung heroes, amassing 20 clearances as he helped ATK to a third Hero ISL title.

Rathi began his football journey playing alongside Jamshedpur FC’s midfielder Amarjit Singh Kiyam, then captain of India’s U-17 World Cup team. He impressed coaches of the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) and earned a place in the preliminary list for India’s U-17 World Cup probables.

However, the defender missed out on the final squad. A raw talent, Rathi then signed for AIFF’s developmental side Indian Arrows but never played a single match during the 2017-18 Hero I-League season before getting his big break in the ATK reserve team.

After plying his trade in the Hero I-League’s second division with ATK’s reserve team for a year, the India U-19 international was promoted to the first team at the beginning of Hero ISL 2019-20. He faced stiff competition in the squad with ATK boasting a star-studded backline comprising the likes of Anas Edathodika, Carl McHugh and later Victor Mongil. The 18-year-old defender started his Hero ISL journey at right back but an injury to Spanish defender Agustin Garcia Iniguez allowed him to play in his natural position.  

Rathi’s performances were enough to impress not only head coach Habas, but many of his teammates as well. In a recent interview, ATK’s Australian forward David Williams praised the young gun and attributed his strong performances to hard work as well as the opportunity of playing beside seasoned professionals like Agustin, “Sumit was playing next to Agus (Garcia) for a little bit which definitely helped him a lot. I think Agus guided him quite a lot.”

Williams continued, “Sumit works hard during the training sessions. In the gym, in the games, he just works hard. A few coaches say you don't need talent to work hard. A lot of the times players who worked the hardest generally get more opportunities than the talented bunch who might take things for granted. Players like him; they keep running and fight for everything. I think that playing in a good team has helped him as well.”

His strong showing with ATK has ensured that the young centre-back can be a prominent member in India’s youth teams, at the very least. Rathi was recently called up for the national camp ahead of the FIFA World Cup and AFC Asian Cup joint qualifiers only for the COVID-19 pandemic to suspend all sporting activities indefinitely.

With Indian head coach Igor Stimac short of options at the back and hoping for improvements defensively, Rathi offers him a promising solution. The youngster is on the right path and if he continues to keep his head down and work hard then the sky’s the limit for the 18-year-old from Uttar Pradesh.