Dheeraj speaks of senior-team experience and its impact on his performances in AFC Champions League
India’s new football sensation Dheeraj Singh has admitted that being part of the Indian senior team earlier this year did have a huge impact on his confidence going into the AFC Champions League.
Dheeraj, who joined FC Goa from ATK Mohun Bagan during the January transfer window of Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2020-21, travelled to Dubai with Igor Stimac’s 27-member squad for two international friendlies against Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in late March.
Although he didn’t get a game there, the effect of just being there with some of India’s top footballers and training with them showed in his performance for the Gaurs in the ensuing AFC Champions League from April 14-30. In the West Region of the competition, Dheeraj came up with 26 saves in five games to prove himself a cut above the rest. His performances went a long way towards Juan Ferrando’s men finishing third in the group ahead of Qatar’s Al Rayyan SC. This was the first time that an Indian club played in the group stage of the prestigious continental club competition.
“I got the national team call-up right after the Hero ISL. It gave me the opportunity to travel with the senior team to the UAE. It was a big motivation for me to train with Gurpreet paaji [Gurpreet Singh Sandhu] and Amrinder paaji [Amrinder Singh]. I was so motivated at that point that I reported straight to Goa [venue for all AFC Champions League Group E, West Region matches] after we came back,” Dheeraj told AIFF TV.
He continued: “Getting into the national team had a big impact on my confidence. Our coach also gave us a lot of confidence, taking the pressure off our shoulders. He just told us to go out there and play our normal game, and that’s what we did.”
The 20-year-old also revealed how Al Wahda head coach Henk ten Cate walked over to him and heaped praise on him. This happened shortly after Dheeraj got injured and had to be substituted in what was FC Goa’s last game of the group stage.
“I still remember, he [ten Cate] came over to our side of the dugout and shook my hand, and gave me a lot of good words. I was not able to speak much because my throat was really painful, and I could only muster a soft ‘thank you,” reminisced Dheeraj.
“It felt very good to be praised by such a high-profile and respected coach. But I was also sad that I was not able to continue the game. It felt very nice to get those good words from him, though,” he added.