The domestic youngsters are no longer willing to play second fiddle to their foreign teammates.
First minute of a game of a new season in the post-COVID era and there’s immense pressure on a 22-year-old to deliver. Having played crucial roles in the last two seasons, this diminutive midfielder had to prove a point to a new coach. One cross in the 52nd second of the game and Anirudh Thapa drives it in the back of the net of TP Rehenesh with one of the sweetest strikes you will ever see.
Anirudh Thapa might be the leader of the pack of India’s new age, but the group has enough skilled protégés to take the game by the scruff of its neck and define it.
Suresh Singh Wangjam, after a couple of years in the wings, is a starter at the heart of Bengaluru FC’s midfield, easily one of India’s most coveted positions. At just 20, Suresh has already played the World Cup (U-17) for his country and is now rubbing shoulders with arguably the greatest Indian footballer ever, Sunil Chhetri. His power-packed performances have time and again defined how Bengaluru control the midfield and win balls from the opposition.
Khel Now has, continuously over the years, reflected on how Indian players were never made a part of the all-important spine of the team, but that is seemingly changing with a plethora of new-age talents who seem to be eager to take more responsibility and thus, a central role.
At Kerala Blasters, both Rahul KP and Sahal Abdul Samad have been the go-to attacking threats for coach Kibu Vicuna, with a foreign striker thrown into the fray. Sahal, particularly, has bulked up to take extra workload and his transformed physique is doing him a world of good fending off defenders. Rahul KP’s duels against Akash Mishra were sheer delight for supporters of Indian football when Hyderabad FC faced Kerala Blasters.
Special mentions must be reserved for Hyderabad FC and NorthEast United FC for bringing a lot of ‘can they do its’ to ‘Oh yes, they can’ to the fore. Akash Mishra, at left-back, has left a lot of clubs and scouts surprised, just like Lalengmawia’s free-form displays in the midfield for the Highlanders. He was, in fact, given the captain’s armband after a couple of brilliant displays. Against East Bengal, his fellow teammate and World Cup teammate Ninthoinganba Meetei was in beast mode, a constant threat down the right wing.
Throw in the likes of Rochharzela and Rahim Ali and the list now features names that have been on the scoresheet more often than once. Manvir Singh, too, came on to play a role against East Bengal in the Kolkata derby, scored a peach and has consistently started since. Every team has at least one or two players that are young, and have been given a specific responsibility, which shows that ISL coaches are finally fielding young Indian footballers not to fill numbers on the pitch, but to play a key part in the shape and style of the team.
Coming back to Hyderabad FC, the resurgence of Chinglensana Singh Konsham is a much-welcome move for Indian football on the whole. His control, composure and ease on the ball are seldom found in Indian centre-backs. Well-built and standing at a handsome 1.86 m, there’s no reason why the Manipuri cannot be the future of India’s defensive solidity. Sana had sat on FC Goa’s bench for some time after two good seasons at Shillong Lajong FC and another one at Delhi Dynamos under Gianluca Zambrotta. Now that he’s playing regularly, fans and administrators are standing up and taking notice.
Rowllin Borges has made the second-highest number of interceptions in the league for Mumbai City FC, only outnumbered by Stephen Eze who has two more interceptions but has played two games more than Islanders’ midfielder. Interestingly, Asish Rai and Lalengmawia are also in the top five, showing how these young Indian footballers are not shying away from the physical and positional duties of the game.
Brandon Fernandes, for the easiness and class with which he regularly finds the upsurging Igor Angulo and Jorge Ortiz, has been in sublime touch. The fact that FC Goa did not replace the outgoing Hugo Boumous shows how much the management trusts the ability of the Indian No. 10. This has seen FC Goa reap the benefits of Fernandes’ slick passing and decisive through-balls.
Looking at a larger picture, it would prepare these young Indian footballers for tasks more difficult in the future. Young players that have not been able to make it to team sheets and the pitch should look for loan opportunities in the I-League, auditioning for their respective coaches in real-time situations.
This season of the Indian Super League has seen a wide range of youngsters rise up to take responsibility for key roles, an event that seldom happened in the past in the competition. This bodes well for Indian football in the long-term and will make its future stars more prepared for tougher challenges and for regular game-time at the top level.