Dependable Dheeraj stands out in solid Indian defence
Colombian Juan Penaloza's 83rd-minute strike in their FIFA U-17 World Cup match against India on Monday night was a particularly cruel blow. It had come out of the blue, when India had barely finished celebrating scoring their first-ever World Cup goal that had left the match tied 1-1 less than a minute before. It would have been a passage of play particularly painful for goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, who lay sprawled on the ground in a last desperate attempt to block the Colombian.
Over the course of the evening, Singh had been one of the standout performers who had kept India in the contest through sheer force of will. He had come into play in the 18th minute when he dived to clear a free kick. He would deny Jaminton Campaz's header at point blank range in the 36th minute, followed by a full-stretch save, six minutes later, to parry Yadir Meneses' rocket of a kick from just outside the box. What more? He had even moved out from under the crossbar to collect loose balls that went past the defence multiple times too.
It had been a performance that had seemingly carried on from the USA game. While India had lost that contest 3-0, Singh had prevented that scoreline from being far more humiliating. No wonder USA coach John Hackworth had singled out Singh's performance for praise.
Coming into the tournament, Singh - the last line of the Indian defence, was also considered the best part of it. It was a tag he had first earned courtesy the two penalty saves at the AFC U-16 Championships in Goa in 2016. Singh has long been considered as one of the mainstays of the Indian team. He was part of the national elite academy ever since he was first scouted at the AIFF football festival in Kalyani in 2013.
And while he might currently be the toast of Indian football, Singh recalls a time it wasn't always so. Speaking to AIFF.com before the World Cup, Singh recalled his own determination to ensure he got a start in the game. While his father Romit wanted him to play badminton, Singh was always enthused by football, even cajoling his grandmother to buy him his first pair of football boots.
While a neighbourhood coach would train youngsters on Sundays, Singh -- as a student of a residential school -- would have to miss out. Instead, he would lie to his school authorities citing a non-existent medical condition and return home on Saturday evening to attend the training sessions. He would train all of Sunday before travelling 25 km early on Monday morning to get back to his school.
He would prove to be a natural under the goalpost, eventually featuring in teams where he was several years younger than his teammates. And while his success continued at the national camp as well, the learning curve along the way has not always been a smooth one. At the Granatkin Cup last year, he was substituted for the first time in his career. In more recent times, at the four-nations tournament in Mexico, he was vulnerable against set pieces. "We gave away seven goals from set pieces," says India coach Luis Matos. In the match against USA, two of the three goals conceded by Singh came from set pieces (a penalty and a corner).
Singh was far more assured against Colombia, though. However, his task isn't done just yet. Against Ghana, India will be up against the most physically-dominant side in their group, who must win big to be assured of a place in the next stage.
It will be the hardest storm India will have to face, but the rock behind the Indian defence will hold the key to weathering it.