Forward Nandhakumar Sekar rounded off his prosperous club campaign with a pivotal international moment last month.
The 27-year-old made his senior debut for the Blue Tigers during the second group stage game of the Hero Intercontinental Cup against Vanuatu, which they ultimately won 1-0.

His first-ever appearance for the national team comes after an emphatic campaign with the Kalinga Warriors, in which he was one of the standout performers for Odisha FC. Nandhakumar played a pivotal role in their Hero Super Cup triumph and was also influential from the left channel in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23 season, catching the eye of Indian head coach Igor Stimac, who called him up to the national team ahead of the Hero Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship.

After donning the national colours for the first time, the forward reacted to the landmark outing, expressing surprise as the moment was unexpected for him.

“First of all, I felt extremely happy to be a part of the India senior team. I got to make my international debut in the Hero Intercontinental Cup. I did not expect it, so I felt very happy,” Nandhakumar shared in an interaction with DT Next.

The Tamil Nadu-born player also expressed his gratitude towards the head coach who boosted his confidence and helped calm his nerves before the game.

He said: “The day before the match, I was told that I would make my debut. I was nervous when I was informed about it. Stimac spoke to me personally and steadied my nerves. ‘Enjoy the moment. I want you to play this way in our structure. I want you to play in this style. Just go out there and express yourself,’ Stimac told me.”

Nandhakumar, who recently completed a move to East Bengal FC, delivered a commendable performance against the Oceania side, showcasing excellent movement both on and off the ball. He came tantalizingly close to scoring his debut goal, after being played through on goal by his current clubmate, Naorem Mahesh Singh.

“The coach gave me the freedom and it was really helpful. On the pitch, my teammates helped me, so it was easy to combine with them. I was able to show my game,” the forward added.

Nandhakumar had previously received call-ups from Stimac for the preparatory camp on a couple of occasions, although he had not been able to make any appearances. However, the wait was finally over, and when the moment arrived, he embraced it wholeheartedly, considering it one of the most treasured experiences in his career.

“We wore the orange jersey (alternate kit) that night. I got the autographs of my teammates and coaches on that jersey. I am yet to frame it. I have not had much time; I have been giving a lot of interviews in the last few days (laughs). I will frame it soon,” said Nandhakumar.

The forward had just over 60 minutes on the pitch against Vanuatu and came off the bench for the final minutes in the final of the Hero Intercontinental Cup against Lebanon. However, he remained on the sidelines for the entirety of the SAFF Championship held in Bengaluru.

Despite limited playing time, Nandhakumar views his experience with the national team as a valuable learning opportunity. He cherishes every moment spent with the team, believing that it will contribute to his growth and development in the future.

“I enjoyed every moment when I was with the national team. There are a lot of differences between club and international football. In the Indian team, there are players who have a lot of experience. I have played against senior players [at the club level]. When I combined with Sunil (Chhetri) bhai and Sandesh Jhingan… I learnt a lot from them – the character I should have while playing for India, how to adapt to the changes in a match,” he stated.

“I won the Hero Super Cup with Odisha FC. I then won the Hero Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship with India. What more can I ask for? There is no better feeling than winning the tournament in which you made your debut,” added Nandhakumar, who had an eventful ride over the past four months.

The forward also expressed his heartfelt appreciation for the supporters who showed up in large numbers, making the journey truly memorable for him.

“The fans [at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium] were always behind us. They were one of the main reasons why we managed to win the SAFF title. For the final [against Kuwait], we had about 26,000 fans who came to support us. The stadium was packed. When we sang Vande Mataram with the fans, we had goosebumps,” he added.

Nandhakumar had arguably the most eventful season of his career, featuring in 32 matches for both club and country, where he found the back of the net 11 times and contributed three assists. Now, he is ready to embrace a new challenge in his career as he joins East Bengal FC, where he will reunite with his former teammate Edwin Sydney Vanspaul.

“I am very happy to have signed for East Bengal FC. We know how football-crazy Kolkata is. We know how the derbies (East Bengal FC vs Mohun Bagan Super Giant) are. I am excited to be a part of them. I have known Edwin for a long time now. When I am with him, I feel comfortable. We speak the same language (Tamil), so it will be helpful to adapt to my new club,” he said.

Nandhakumar, who predominantly played as an inverted winger at Odisha FC, acknowledges the importance of improving his crossing abilities and shooting with his weaker foot as he looks ahead to the upcoming season.

“Crossing and shooting… shooting with my left foot,” he commented.