At 5’9”, FC Goa’s teenage ‘keeper Mohammad Nawaz stands tall

Nawaz has enjoyed a breakthrough season after being promoted to FC Goa's first team under Sergio Lobera.

Mohammad Nawaz (13, in green) fits Sergio Lobera's philosophy perfectly, helping him get the nod for FC Goa.   -  ISL/Sportzpics

FC Goa’s 19-year-old goalkeeper Mohammad Nawaz’s senior debut in the opening match of its season got off to a disastrous start, as early as the eighth minute of the Indian Super League game against NorthEast United.

Nawaz, then 18, handled the ball outside the 18-yard area and conceded a free-kick that resulted in the home team scoring the goal. Bartholomew Ogbeche was offside when the ball was played in behind the Goa defence but he didn't go chasing the ball and the linesman didn't put his flag up, which is perhaps what Nawaz expected when he came rushing off his line. The free-kick was awarded for his handling the ball and, with Nawaz still wandering outside the area, Federico Gallego chipped the ball into the gaping goal to punish the teenager’s blunder. “It’s a harsh beginning and a terrible beginning to an ISL career,” the commentator said on air.

Fortunately for Nawaz, he was prepared for the scrutiny and quickly moved on from the incident. ”See, I did make a mistake. When playing against Uruguay in a U-14 game in Brazil, I made a mistake. But they don’t matter to me, I learn from it. It doesn’t affect me. I continue with my game,” says Nawaz.

Having signed for Goa at the start of 2018 for the ‘Developmental’ side, the Manipur-born ‘keeper was just happy to train alongside senior custodians Laxmikant Kattimani and Lalthuammawia Ralte, who are past I-League winners. But after impressing head coach Sergio Lobera during the pre-season, he was promoted to the first team.

This was, after all, a 'keeper who was standing at a height of 175cms (5’9”). To put that into perspective, the average height of the nine starting goalkeepers of the ISL sides this season was 186 cms (6’1”).

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“I didn’t think I would start in the first game. On match day, our goalkeeping coach asked me if I was ready. I said yes. In the team meeting, I saw my name in the starting line-up. I wasn’t surprised by it because I was ready,” he says with a smile.

Fits Lobera's philosophy

What perhaps tilted Lobera’s nod of approval in Nawaz’s favour was his ability to play out from the back using both his feet. Lobera, who has previously coached FC Barcelona’s youth teams, requires his goalkeepers to build attacks from the back in addition to making saves between the posts.

Nawaz's pass completion rate in the ISL was 80.3 per cent. Only Delhi Dynamos’ Francisco Dorronsoro and Nawaz’s team-mate Naveen Kumar had a better pass completion rate among goalkeepers who played over 150 passes in the ISL.

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Mohammad Nawaz is calm under pressure when playing the ball out from the back.   -  ISL/Sportzpics

From an early stage in his career, Nawaz was comfortable on the ball and had an assured first touch. He played as a midfielder and a defender before putting on the goalkeeping gloves. Even at his tender age, Nawaz oozes calmness playing in high-stakes matches in the ISL and looks at home with the ball at his feet.

“From my childhood, I am good with both my feet. The first day I went for the Manipur U-13 trials, I didn’t even have gloves on me. There were many players but no goalkeeper. My uncle told me to play as a goalkeeper and that’s what I did and got selected. I got lucky,” he says.

Momentum cut short

Slip-ups have been inevitable in Nawaz’s nascent career. In the 55th minute against FC Pune City in just his fourth start, he was beaten down his near post. He, then, made amends by saving a penalty off Emiliano Alfaro with Goa in the lead, 4-2.

After adding his fourth clean-sheet in 13 matches, an injury derailed Nawaz’s momentum against Mumbai City FC in February. Naveen Kumar, on loan from Kerala Blasters, stepped in and managed to keep out Nawaz until the end of the ISL season.

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Mohammad Nawaz in action for FC Goa against ATK at the Yuba Bharati Krirangan.   -  ISL/Sportzpics

Nawaz, who was an India international at the U-17 and U-19 levels, feels that the injury also scuppered his chances of playing in the AFC U-23 championship qualifiers last month. "I was injured after the Mumbai match. Maybe I could have played if I was fit. I was happy to have reunited with Dheeraj (Singh) and Prabhusukhan Gill", who Nawaz has played with since the U-13 days.

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He was reinstated in the line-up for the Super Cup against Indian Arrows in which he claimed a clean-sheet. In the quarterfinals against Jamshedpur FC, he held his position well before making a crucial save in the first half to preserve Goa’s lead. He had a calming presence in goal.

Strong personality

His decision-making while passing from the back tends to invite danger. A risky pass was intercepted and punished with a goal on Saturday, but coach Lobera refused to criticise the youngster. Lobera said, “Actually, he didn’t make a mistake today. If anyone made a mistake today, it was me. It was me who wanted him to play from behind. He is a brave goalkeeper who has done a lot of good things.”

The coach has placed a lot of faith in Nawaz’s ability. “He is a young player with a lot of personality and I think one single mistake won’t make him lose his self-confidence.”

Despite his short stature, Nawaz continues to rise to the occasion and impress under the bar in what has been a breakthrough season for him.