The old order changeth

Syed Rahim Nabi… “We have to play on FIFA dates. We are a side on the rise and that has to reflect on the world stage.”-Pics: PTI

The Indian team that won the Nehru Cup didn’t seem to miss the seniors. Players such as Syed Rahim Nabi and Subrata Paul, who played secondary roles to the seasoned pros earlier, handled the pressure admirably and shouldered added responsibility, writes Ayon Sengupta.

Missing players such as Bhaichung Bhutia and Climax Lawrence, who have retired from international football, and a host of other senior men, Wim Koevermans’ team had a Herculean task going into the Nehru Cup. Fortunately for India’s newly appointed Dutch manager, the few known faces in the squad admirably took over the mantle to guide the newer members.

The likes of Syed Rahim Nabi and Subrata Paul, who played second fiddle to the seasoned pros earlier, handled the pressure admirably and shouldered added responsibility.

Utility players are few and far between in football, and hence the tiny miniscule of them are held in high regards. They are priceless possessions for any coach and Koevermans was quick to find out his go-to man. The diminutive Syed Rahim Nabi, 26, has played in almost every position — from striker to wingback — and to the astonishment of many has been successful in every role.

“I started my career as a striker. Under Subhash (Bhowmick), I played side back and from then on, playing in different positions became my forte. I am comfortable anywhere. During training, coaches keep on joking that I should have remained a striker,” says the man of the Nehru Cup final.

“People are amazed to know that I started as a striker, but I am really happy with the manner things have shaped up in my career. I’m ever ready to play at any position the coach wants me to,” Nabi adds.

The Mohun Bagan left back is excited about the current crop of players in the National side and expects a bright future. “Football in India is on the right track. The new batch of players deserves all the praise. We are a confident bunch and the camaraderie is fantastic. It shows in the way we played the final,” says Nabi.

“We had only seen Cameroon play in the World Cup on television. To beat them is unbelievable. They are way ahead of us in terms of physical and technical prowess but they lost to our combined tenacity.”

Spiderman at work... India's goalkeeper Subrata Paul saves a goal against Nepal during a Nehru Cup match. "We can definitely be in the top 100, but for that you need to play regularly," he says.-

Lavishing praise on his new manager, Nabi adds: “Wim has been all-embracing, helping us on and off the field, giving us confidence. He believes in attacking football and under his guidance we are moving the ball quickly out from defence and have been able to add numbers while attacking.”

Nabi now wants to take on the heavyweights from Asia and is of the view that constant international exposure is the only way forward.

“We have to play on FIFA dates. We are a side on the rise and that has to reflect on the world stage,” he explains. “The clubs have to be supportive (release players for national duty). Playing on FIFA dates will make the result count. Surely, we are much better than our FIFA ranking suggests.”

Goalkeeping hero, Subrata echoes the same sentiment. “We can definitely be in the top 100, but for that you need to play regularly. That should be AIFF’s top priority now,” he says. “We should play teams ranked between 90 and 120 and a couple of wins there will improve our rankings as well our confidence.”

The overawed South Koreans had earlier called Subrata the “Spiderman” after his heroics against them in the 2011 Asia Cup. And given his propensity to come out on top, especially in the penalty shootouts, the name sits perfectly on him, though he is too modest to fall for it. Subrata has now twice won the Nehru Cup for India, getting the better of his foes from the dreaded spot. “Delhi and the month of August/September are lucky for us. The above combination has given us four titles since 2007,” he says.

Subrata, however, is not ready to share the success of his secret in saving penalties. “It won’t be a secret if I spill it out to you now,” he says with a hint of mischief. “But yeah, I love playing football. I can play anywhere, the Nehru Stadium or even the small strip of land in front of my house. Playing football is not a job for me, I enjoy every minute on the field.”

The lanky goalkeeper, who has moved back to Kolkata to play for Prayag United after donning the colours of Pune FC for a couple of season, wants to try his luck in Europe. He recently came back from a training trip to the German fourth division side, RB Leipzig. “The goalkeeping coach there was very impressed with my work ethic and has called me back for next season. The few days spent there was an eye opener and I am confident of securing a contract somewhere in Europe next season,” Subrata says.

Nabi, though, is not eager to play for a foreign club. “Foreign clubs are paying less than what I am getting here. You need the right opportunity, financially as well as playing opportunity before you can take that call,” he says. “There’s no point in going and playing in any foreign club.”