With a very young national team and a host of talented footballers breaking through, the future looks bright for Indian football.
Qualifying for the senior FIFA World Cup, getting back in the Olympics fold, being among the top 10 teams in Asia – Indian football has set itself some lofty goals for the future.
While the current batch, spearheaded by Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, has laid down a solid platform to launch these grand ambitions, achieving these are certain to take a decade or so, realistically.
So, sooner or later, the baton will inevitably pass to Indian football’s future stars to take the country’s footballing dreams across the finish line. A tough task for sure, but India’s Generation Next seems up to the task.
Looking ahead, here are the best young Indian football players (under 21s) who may prove crucial in Indian football’s journey to its promised land.
Captain of India’s 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup team, Manipur’s Amarjit Singh Kiyam, right now, is certain to lead any list of best young Indian football players.
Having earned his stripes for AIFF’s developmental Indian Arrows side in the I-League, Amarjit recently made the transition to Indian Super League (ISL), impressing for Jamshedpur FC in their 2019-20 campaign.
Amarjit has also been a regular in Igor Stimac’s senior national team setup since making his India debut at the historic King’s Cup in Thailand in June 2019. An absolute ‘live wire’ on the pitch, as dubbed by Sunil Chhetri, Amarjit started as a defensive midfielder but has developed into a top box-to-box player in the past few years.
The Indian footballer is known for his hard tackles and is good at making clever runs into the opposition box to score – a playing style which seems moulded on Italian World Cup winner Daniele De Rossi.
But what sets young Amarjit apart is his leadership qualities and the ability to set examples on the pitch – be it in the junior team or in the senior fold.
“Amarjit’s energy transmits to each one of us. He was somebody who was the standard for everyone,” Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri said just months after Amarjit Kiyam broke into the national side.
“If you tell him to fight with a wall for three hours, you will come back to see that he is still fighting with the wall,” said Chhetri.
One of Indian football’s future stars for certain and a potential captain.
Staying in the family, Amarjit’s cousin made headlines at the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup after scoring the Indian team’s only goal of the campaign in the group stage against Colombia. He still is the only Indian goal scorer in a major FIFA tournament.
Standing at 6’1”, the Chandigarh Football Academy graduate remained in Amarjit’s shadow in the Indian Arrows team. But the young central midfielder broke free after stepping into the ISL stage with Kerala Blasters in 2019 and became a mainstay in head coach Eelco Schattorie’s side.
Jeakson’s gritty performances even left former Nigerian World Cupper and Paris Saint-Germain star Bartholomew Ogbeche – Kerala’s captain from last season - mighty impressed.
Now knocking on the door of the Indian football team, it seems just a matter of time before Igor Stimac welcomes him amongst the senior squad.
Another Manipuri and a member of the Indian contingent for the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem is one of India’s top goalkeeping prospects.
Following some eye-catching displays at the Youth World Cup, the Indian custodian was also on track to join Scottish Premiership side Motherwell FC but a potential three-year deal didn’t materialize due to work permit issues.
Dheeraj, however, has continued his development playing for ISL sides Kerala Blasters and ATK (now ATK Mohun Bagan) and has been in the periphery of the senior India team.
With India’s first-choice goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu still under 30 along with backup custodian, Mumbai City FC’s Amrinder Singh, it may still take some time for Dheeraj to break into the senior side. But age - Dheeraj is 20 - is certainly on his side.
While the U-17 World Cup kickstarted Dheeraj’s career, for FC Goa’s Mohammad Nawaz, it was a snub from the 2017 tournament’s India squad which sparked his ascent.
Determined to do better after missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was the 2017 U-17 World Cup, the young goalkeeper has progressed rapidly, establishing himself as the first-choice keeper for FC Goa – perhaps the most consistent team in the ISL.
Despite his short frame, Nawaz possesses exceptional reflexes that makes him an incredible shot-stopper. Nawaz is also good with his feet, making him a perfect foil for Goa’s possession-based style which draws heavily from the Spanish game.
At 20, Nawaz is the youngest first-choice goalkeeper for a top-flight team in India and his potential race with Dheeraj to be India’s No. 1 presents a win-win situation for Indian football.
With Goa set to play in the AFC Champions League this season for topping the ISL 2019-20 table after the league phase, expect Nawaz’s growth to be fast-tracked due to the Asian exposure.
Sumit Rathi’s rise to fame has been meteoric. At the beginning of 2019, the Muzaffarnagar-born was largely an unheard of footballer but by early 2020, the ATK Mohun Bagan central defender was the toast of the nation.
Drafted into ATK (now ATK Mohun Bagan) senior squad from the B team last season by coach Antonio Lopez Habas, Rathi made his ISL debut against Odisha FC (formerly Delhi Dynamos) in November 2019. He replaced veteran India international Anas Edathodika in the second half, and there was no looking back after that.
Not only did the youngster manage to keep Anas - a full-fledged India international – out of the team, he also became a key component in ATK’s title-winning season.
Rathi won the prestigious ISL Emerging Player of the Year Award in 2019-20 – given to the most promising youngster in the league.
A solid tackler with an impeccable game sense, Rathi’s maturity, despite his age, stands out. In the ISL 2019-20 semi-final second leg against erstwhile reigning champions Bengaluru FC, the youngster did make a rare mistake to allow BFC’s Ashique Kuruniyan score the first goal of the match.
Mistakes like that, especially in a do-or-die playoff tie, can often prove detrimental for young players but Rathi bounced back. He ended the match as one of the standout players of his team as ATK progressed to the final.
Already on Stimac’s radar, Sumit Rathi could just be the centre-back partner Jhingan needs in the Indian football team.
Besides the five, Bengaluru FC’s Suresh Singh Wangjam, Kerala-born striker Rahul KP, Jamshedpur FC’s Narender Gahlot, ATK Mohun Bagan’s Komal Thatal and Manvir Singh, Odisha FC right-back Shubham Sarangi and Indian Arrows’ Rohit Danu and Vikram Pratap Singh are some other under-21 young footballers to keep an eye on.
Also, considering the likes of Sahal Abdul Samad, two-time AIFF Emerging Player Anirudh Thapa, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Ashique Kurunian and Udanta Singh – all under 25 – are already mainstays in India’s first-team senior squad, the future looks bright for Indian football.