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The FC Goa shot-stopper spoke about his performance in the AFC Champions League and aspiration for the next season.

No one would have thought, the strides the young Dheeraj Singh would be taking, would turn out to be this momentous. The former India U-17 goalkeeper had to contend with a place on the ATK Mohun Bagan bench at the start of the 2020-21 ISL season, before FC Goa came calling. With the switch to the Gaurs, came the playing time. A shaky start saw critics attack him from every side, but the youngster and his determination persevered.

Dheeraj Singh turned the tables around during the AFC Champions League (ACL) campaign, delivering mind-boggling performances on the continental level. Those performances gave him his first senior national call-up and although he didn’t start in any of the games, India’s future looks bright.

Move to FC Goa

Dheeraj Singh was the second-choice goalkeeper for ATK Mohun Bagan, when he got the career-changing offer from the Gaurs. The decision was pretty understandable from his side. “When I got an offer from FC Goa I was quite interested. Everyone knows that FC Goa plays beautiful football,” said the 21-year-old.

“They keep the ball on the ground, move it around and try to involve everyone on the pitch, including the goalkeeper. It was going to be a good learning process for me. In modern football, keepers are involved in building up and relieving the pressure off the defenders.”

Bench to the starting XI

From being limited to the bench to being named in ACL Team of the Matchday, it was no easy journey. The pressure that comes along with the job was dealt with well. “As a professional, I keep on working hard and try to prepare myself and be fit for any kind of situation. At FC Goa, I was getting opportunities to play and I had to utilise it,” Dheeraj Singh reflected.

“It was not easy; it was quite difficult. Because training and playing a game are quite different. But, as a professional, you have to cope up with that situation,” he added.

The ACL campaign

The AFC Champions League was a test of resilience for the Gaurs, who became the first team from India to play in the competition. They showcased their spirit and drive by performing above expectations. “It was a huge opportunity for every single player. We enjoyed playing against bigger teams. We tested them and showed what we as a team are capable of,” said Dheeraj, who pulled off 26 saves in five games in the ACL.

“The coach backed us and asked us to play our normal game we played in the ISL. We just went there and played all out, gave our 100%. I think we had a very good campaign.”

Bringing the game to Asian opposition

The Gaurs were brilliant, especially against Qatari giants Al Rayyan. Dheeraj Singh felt that it was not a shock to him that the players were able to produce such good performances. “Anything can happen in the game. We have very good players, to be honest. It was not a surprise, as I was a part of the team. We know the capabilities of our team. Everyone had given their 100%,” he said, confidence oozing in his voice.

The praise & drive

The 21-year-old’s performances in the tournament got a lot of praise from top opposition coaches as well as those in India. Dheeraj Singh also made the Team of the Matchday twice. He understands the appreciation but is not ready to rest on the laurels. “It felt good and it is an honour to get any kind of appreciation from qualified coaches. It makes me happy, but I shouldn’t get carried away. I am very young and need to work on many other skills. I will take the appreciation and use it as motivation to work harder in the future,” said the custodian.

Juan Ferrando’s positive approach

FC Goa’s transition from the Sergio Lobera era to the Juan Ferrando reign has been seamless. The club hasn’t skipped a beat, particularly because of the positive atmosphere promoted by the current head coach. “It was an absolute pleasure to work with the coach,” said Dheeraj. “He is a very good coach and doesn’t put pressure. He encourages the players and appreciates the effort that the players put.”

Need to improve

Dheeraj feels that he has a lot of miles to go and strives for constant improvement. The youngster knows that there are skills he needs to hone and polish to become one of the best in India. “I am very young and have lot of areas to improve. I have to accept it. Playing with FC Goa is an honour,” he said. Dheeraj Singh has cemented his position as the No. 1 choice at FC Goa with his performances in the second half of the ISL and the AFC Champions League.

But he doesn’t let that stop himself from striving to be better. “If I have to continue at the top level for them, I have to be better with my feet. I’Il need to play with the ball and give good passes. I want to improve and put work in that area,” he asserted.

National team call-up

The FC Goa keeper’s heroics in the ACL campaign, earned him a spot in the Indian national team recently, the dream of every player in the country. “To get an opportunity to travel with the team is a huge honour. It is amazing to be included in the team,” Dheeraj recounted.

“Getting the chance to play with Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu) and Amrinder (Singh) is a big opportunity. I keep on learning from them, what they do inside and outside the pitch. I have to keep working hard and reach their level,” he concluded.

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