Hunting in pairs

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST


ASHIF SAHEER and Abdul Hakim are hunters of a different kind. Both are small-made, wiry men in their early twenties, soft-spoken and unobtrusive on the ground, till a football is rolled or lobbed into their path. Then instinct takes over, transforming these two Kerala strikers into hungry predators going in for the kill. There is an understanding between them which can best be described as eerie, a sort of telegraphic awareness of each other's positions and intentions.

"Our understanding has developed after playing for the SBT (State Bank of Travancore) team," said Hakim who joined in 1999 after starring for Calicut University in the All-India Inter-University Championships the same year. He scored seven goals in three matches, including a golden goal in the final, to emerge as the top scorer in the 57th Santosh Trophy, just one goal ahead of fellow striker Saheer, the senior in SBT's squad by one year.

Saheer is the more experienced of the two, already a known name among defenders and goalkeepers in the National Football League. Even at the Mumbai Nationals, the attention was on this 23-year-old Malappuram lad, yet he managed to score six spectacular goals, the highlight being a striker's dream goal - a low bicycle kick against Tamil Nadu. Two defenders trailed him in the semi-final and final, giving Hakim the space and time to explode into action, netting three goals in these knockout games.

There is camaraderie and competition between these two SBT and Kerala strikers, feeding off each other's strengths and at the same time not letting go any scoring opportunities. However, the respect the 22-year-old Hakim has for his striking partner and vice-versa eliminates any feeling of one-upmanship creeping into the relationship. "Saheer has the speed and dash. I like to dribble and take shots," observed Hakim, who is aware of the distracting effects of Saheer's presence on defenders, giving him space to do some quick work in enemy territory.

Kerala's second goal in the final came due to Saheer's vision and planning, setting off on a diagonal run towards the right corner flag, then hitting a perfect ground pass to the near post, ahead of the goalkeeper but behind the defenders for Hakim to tap in. Both finish their moves silently and quickly, though their styles differ. Saheer is the explosive type, tricky and unpredictable on the ground and in the air, capable of scoring through headers, overhead kicks, on-the-run shots and rebounds.

Hakim loves to search for corners to slot the ball in past the goalkeepers, usually snap volleys after beating the defenders to the ball. The 'golden goal' came due to one such inspired move when Kerala's top scorer, finding the ball at his feet and no fellow striker within passing range, took a shot on the turn in the second half of extra-time against Goa.

Goalkeeper Kalyan Chaubey stood rooted on the goalline waiting to sight the ball in case it cleared the two defenders standing in front of him. Instead, the ball sped between the legs of the two defenders, flew towards the right post before swerving in and nestling high into the net. "I got the ball, I took a shot. I don't know what happened after that. My mind was blank," said the 22-year-old, whose instinctive reaction after realising the importance of his successful attempt was to take off his jersey and run up and down the Goa half, chased by his delirious teammates.

"I used to watch Santosh Trophy on television, celebrate Kerala's victories and was even a ball-boy when Palakkad hosted it once. But winning the National title for Kerala with my first golden goal, calling up home afterwards and to be told about the celebrations because of my goals is a dream come true," said Hakim, unable to hide his joy. "I want to be famous, like (I.M) Vijayan, my favourite Indian footballer," said the golden boy, a fan of England's Michael Owen, a thought echoed by Saheer.

Now these two match-winners in Kerala's Santosh Trophy campaign are hot property and already National Football League clubs on the hunt for Indian talent under the loan system are on Hakeem and Saheer's trail, especially since SBT is out of the fray in this year's NFL. The two have been approached by Mahindra United and Vasco. It would make sound football sense if the two decide to join any other club together, maintaining the cohesion and understanding they have developed during their stint with SBT.

The two Kerala strikers may be aware of the difficulties faced by Tata Football Academy graduates who move out of the comforts of the academy and venture into Indian club football as professionals, learning the secrets of survival the hard way. Some of the brightest graduates like Sheikh Sanjib, another wiry, skilful striker not adept at physical football, was unable to make headway in Mumbai and Calcutta leagues before finding his bearings under Mohd Habib (ex-TFA coach) at ITI, Bangalore.

Hakim and Saheer should hunt in pairs, like their more famous seniors from Kerala, I. M. Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri, who sign up for clubs as a joint package deal, shifting from Mohun Bagan to JCT to FC Kochin and now to East Bengal together.

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