The eighteen-year-old custodian’s father Pawan Kumar played for JCT.

In so far as legacies go, Naveen Saini is following through. At, 18, Sant Baba Bhag Singh University’s goalkeeper is slowly ticking off the list from his goalkeeping idol’s achievements — and in a fledgling career, even already surpassed some. Who is his idol? Pat comes the reply. “My father of course.”

The SBBS team, in their shining blue and white kits, took to the Jain Global Campus pitch for a practice session before the Khelo India University Games in the afternoon today. Their chief attraction was the  6’5″, tall lanky goalkeeper dressed in black, with stripes on his sleeves. Unmissable, and for good reason. 

Saini is from Phagwara, so it makes sense that he grew up with a footballing memory. His father Pawan Kumar was a goalkeeper for JCT’s state league team and played for CRPF in the 90s. This was a time when JCT had superstars in their ranks, men who soon became legends. “My father never played at the national level, but he played with and around big players like Vijayan, [Jo-Paul] Ancheri… it counts for a lot.”

Saini, a second-year B.Phy Ed and Sports student got ingrained in the lonesome art of goalkeeping from a very young age. His father was his first coach, and right from the start, his height helped the cause. Saini was scouted and picked for the India U15 team six years ago, graduated to the U17 National Team, and was on course to feature for the Indian Arrows in the I-League.

A bad bout of Covid-19 just before the commencement of the 2020-21 I-League season saw him miss out on a chance to show his skills in the grown-up league, and soon after he had outgrown AIFF’s development team. It was time to move on. 

Where others may have been disheartened because of losing time, Saini took it to heart. His inspiration this time came from a senior in the junior national team setup, and a former fellow Chandigarh football academy graduate, Prabhsukhan Gill. “Sukhan pajji was sitting on the bench for so many seasons of the ISL,” he says.

“Goalkeepers’ lives are such. You’ll get one chance and sometimes it takes a long while. When he got it, he took it with both hands (Prabsukhan won the golden glove in the recently concluded ISL season).”

SBBS finished second in the All India Inter-University Football Championship in Calicut in January. The winners were the home team, the University of Calicut. “This is my first experience of the Khelo India Games,” he said. “Many members of my team have been part of the University Games before, and we’ve come with a strong team. We want to win this.” 

Saini is the junior goalkeeper in the ranks but is known for his penalty-stopping skills. “My father was the same,” he smiles, with a twinkle in his eye. “He won CRPF several tournaments via shootouts. If the game is stuck in a stalemate, headed towards a shootout, the coach always puts me on. I’m always expected to save two or three.”   

The Khelo India University Games football competition kicks off tomorrow, with women’s teams the first up. Annamalai University take on Bharathidasan University in the opener. SBBS meanwhile will face MG University in their Group B opener on Monday. 

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