When one speaks of India at 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, one always thinks of the young goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem.
However, there was another keeper from Manipur on the fringes of the core squad that was built by All India Football Federation ahead of the U-17 World Cup, whose name may not have featured much two years back, but is very much prominent now.
Mohammad Nawaz has mesmerised one and all with his displays for FC Goa this season at the age of 19. He has even gone on to eclipse veteran local boy Laxmikant Kattimani, who brings bags full of experience with him.
A FALSE START
Having started in Manipur when he was just a kid, Nawaz was scouted by the AIFF Elite Academy when he was just 13-years-old. With the U-17 World Cup coming up, Nawaz was picked in the core squad of players who would be prepped for the mega tournament.
From going on international tours with the squad, to playing some of the best junior sides from across the world, Nawaz had done it all. However, he couldn’t find place in the core squad for the mega event.
“I was very disappointed when I missed out on the U-17 World Cup squad. Throughout my five years at the Academy till then, I had kept that as my goal, and then suddenly I was out of the reckoning,” said Nawaz. “But that’s all part of life. The phase made me a better keeper.”
The young goalkeeper may have been disappointed, but he was not to be deterred. “It was saddening at first, but then seeing Dheeraj do so well in the World Cup also motivated me. I told myself that I could not let this setback ruin my career,” he said.
“I decided that this was just the first step, and that I would have to work hard and get back in the sphere of national team football. Mujhe team mein ghusna hi tha (I just had to play for India),” quipped a determined Nawaz.
ONE STEP CLOSER TO THE ‘GOA’L
After the World Cup, Nawaz started training hard, and became one of the first players from the core U-17 squad to get a contract with a Hero Indian Super League side – FC Goa.
“I was quite happy to finally get a professional contract,” said Nawaz, who comes from a humble family. His father works as a driver, and his mother as an anganwadi worker. “This contract helped me bring some financial stability to my family.”
Although it was a major breakthrough for the youngster, he was still kept in the reserve side of the club, that would ply its trade in the Hero 2nd Division League.
“The Reserve team was a good start, but my ultimate goal still remains to play for the senior National Team. So I knew that I had to play as well as I could in the 2nd Division, and make it to the first team,” he said.
That did not take too long, as Nawaz’s exploits in the 2018 Goa Pro League were noticed by none other than FC Goa Head Coach Sergio Lobera. “He came up to me, and told me that he liked my performance and that he wants to take me to the senior team to play in the ISL.”
From then on, Nawaz has not looked back, putting his World Cup disappointments well behind him, as he looked to build a better future at Goa.
“Coach gave me a lot of confidence when I first came into the first team. The staff and management also helped a lot with different aspects – what to eat, what kind of a daily routine to follow. All these things have helped me become a better and a fitter athlete,” he said.
RETURN TO NATIONAL COLOURS
Nawaz’s dream of playing in the National Team colours was partially fulfilled when he was selected for the U-23 camp, and subsequently in the India U-23 squad for the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship Qualifiers in Uzbekistan.
“Nawaz is a very talented goalkeeper. He was well spotted by the AIFF Academy back when he was young, and he keeps proving to everyone why he is such a huge potential,” said India U-23 Goalkeeping Coach Gumpe Rime.
“He may not be the tallest of goalkeepers, but he very well makes up for that with his positioning sense, good movement of his feet, and his agility,” Rime continued.
For Nawaz himself, it was a rather emotional moment, to be back in the national team colours. “I can’t tell you how happy I was to have been selected for the U-23 National Side,” he said. “I had worked so hard after the U-17 World Cup. And I can see the results. But there is still a long way to go.”