After fearless performances under the bar for India at the FIFA U-17 World Cup that earned him recognition, the career breakthroughs are still to happen for Dheeraj Singh.
For the 18-year-old, returning to the national squad — India’s U-23 squad for the AFC U-23 Championship Qualifiers in Uzbekistan, where India did not advance to the final round after two league losses — serves as a morale-booster after a planned career move away from India with Motherwell FC in Scotland failed to take shape. Denied work permit on technical grounds after clearing the trial, Dheeraj came back to join Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League (ISL).
Faced with tough competition for places in the India U-23 team and in ISL clubs from other Indian goalkeepers, the Manipuri realises his next move will be critical. Among his rivals are Mohammad Nawaz (FC Goa) — a contender for a first-team place in the India U-23 team.
In the 2018-19 ISL season, Delhi Dynamos was the only club with a foreign goalkeeper; it was an exception as other squads opted for an Indian as the first-choice custodian.
Dheeraj, a guest at the Mumbai District Football Association (MDFA) awards ceremony here, acknowledges the tough competition for spots for goalkeepers at the national and club levels. “We have lots of good Indian goalkeepers, in the ISL, the I-League and even in youth category. It is going to be tough for all of us to get into the national side. We cannot be relaxed with what we have, there is need to push ourselves harder than ever before,” he says.
He realises that gaining a spot in a successful ISL squad and a confirmed first-team place in the outfit will assist him in staying in the reckoning.
Dheeraj is non-committal about his next career move. “I have not taken a decision,” he replies when asked whether he plans to continue playing for Blasters.
Blasters had endured a difficult campaign last season in the ISL, finishing ninth out of 10 teams with two wins out of 18 matches. This run was despite the side possessing good domestic and foreign players on paper. “Losing a few matches we should have won, affected us. When team is losing, we should have got mentally stronger for the games ahead. Looking back at last season for us, this did not happen,” Dheeraj explains.
There were no new enquiries for trials with foreign clubs for Dheeraj. His next move in the ISL will be keenly watched.
North East United FC and ATK — now coached by Antonio Habas — may take him closer to home and bigger fan following. Dheeraj has done enough for Indian teams to be in demand and is clear about sealing a first-team place in a club as priority.
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