Mehtab Singh, Naorem Mahesh Singh, and Ritwik Das express their joy after India debuts
Indian men's football team head coach Igor Stimac has never shied away from giving young players a chance since taking over the Blue Tigers back in May 2019. During his time as head coach, Stimac has rewarded many young players for their domestic performances with a call-up to the senior team.
Ahead of the Hero Tri-National International Football Tournament in Manipur, Stimac had called up four new players – Phurba Lachenpa, Mehtab Singh, Rohit Kumar, and Naorem Mahesh Singh – following their impressive performances in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23 season.
On Wednesday, Mehtab and Naorem Mahesh made their debuts for the Blue Tigers during their 1-0 win against Myanmar in the opener of the Hero Tri-National International Football Tournament alongside Ritwik Das, with the latter two featuring off the bench.
The trio have been a vital part for their respective teams in Hero ISL 2022-23. Mehtab was a regular figure for his side Mumbai City FC as they won the League Sheild. Naorem Mahesh, finished as the player with the most assists (seven) for East Bengal FC, contributing nine goals throughout the season. Meanwhile, Das was the leading goalscorer for Jamshedpur FC in the season with six strikes to his name.
Mehtab, who featured in the playing eleven against Myanmar, looked confident at the back and hardly put a foot wrong. The Punjab defender was proud of helping his side record a clean sheet.
“I really enjoyed my debut. We won the match, and even managed to keep a clean sheet. As a defender, that’s something special, maybe as good as getting a goal. I’ve been dreaming about this moment since I was a kid,” Mehtab said to the-aiff.com.
😌 + ⛈️ = #BlueTigers 🐯#HeroTriNation 🏆 #BackTheBlue 💙 #IndianFootball ⚽ pic.twitter.com/rtK6Z0qVXq— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) March 23, 2023
“As a defender, it becomes a responsibility to not let the opposition sniff a goal, and to be a platform for the rest of the team to launch forward from,” he added.
Local boy Mahesh had the opportunity to play in front of his family and friends for the first time in national colours. The winger, who came on during the 70th minute, proved to be a handful for the opposition defenders.
“I don’t think I have any words to describe the feeling that I had when the coach told me to get ready and come on as a substitute,” Mahesh said after the game. “This is my hometown, and I had the opportunity to bring my family to watch me play my first game as well.”
“It was too special for me, this moment, and I will cherish this for the rest of my life,” he mentioned.
Meanwhile, Das finally got a chance to play for the Blue Tigers after multiple setbacks last year. The forward was called up for India’s friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus, but was forced to withdraw owing to an injury. And ahead of the third round of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in June, he contracted chicken pox despite being named in the provisional squad.
The Asansol-born player came on against Myanmar during the dying stages of the game and was delighted that he finally got his chance.
“It was a huge disappointment to come all the way to a National camp last year and just go back because I got ill. When you work so hard for something for such a long time, and then have it suddenly snatched from you for no fault of your own, it is really difficult to take it in your stride,” said Das.
“Recovering was tough mentally. But it was a good learning process for me as well. One has to learn how to take such setbacks into their stride,” he added.