Feature

Mandar Rao Dessai: ‘Special’ to be the first to play 100 ISL matches

Exactly six years and one month after his debut in the league, Mandar Rao Dessai became the first player to reach a century of matches in the ISL.

By Utathya Nag and Naveen Peter ·

The moment Mumbai City FC’s Mandar Rao Dessai stepped onto the field against East Bengal in the Indian Super League (ISL) on Tuesday, there was a new entry in the record books.

The 28-year-old Dessai became the first player in ISL history to play in 100 matches in the league.

“Every player wants to play and keep on playing. It’s a very special feeling to be the first player to play in 100 games in the ISL,” Mandar Rao Dessai told the Olympic Channel.

“From the very first season, it’s been a privilege to play in a big league like the ISL. As the years went by, I was consistent and played every season. That’s culminated into me playing 100 games,” Dessai added.

For the Goa-born player, it’s been an eventful journey in the ISL. Mandar Rao Dessai marked his ISL debut for FC Goa under legendary Brazilian coach Zico when he was 22 years old.

“Under Zico, I didn’t get into the first XI for the first few matches. But then he came to me and told me I’ve been doing well in practice and he would play me. He ensured there was no pressure. He just told me to go out there and enjoy the game,” Dessai recalled.

Mandar Rao Dessai made his ISL debut on November 1, 2014, against Delhi Dynamos. The pacey winger almost immediately established himself as one of Zico’s favourites and played an integral role in the Gaurs’ charge to the final in ISL 2015.

With a change of guard at FC Goa’s helm in 2017, Mandar’s position only strengthened as he was an instant hit with new head coach Sergio Lobera as well. He played every single match in the 2017-18 ISL season – Lobera’s debut campaign in India.

The Jordi Alba twist in Mandar’s career

However, it was the following season which turned out to be a landmark for Mandar Rao Dessai’s footballing career. Not only was he named FC Goa’s captain, but Lobera also transitioned him from a winger to a left back. The move would have huge implications for Mandar.

“Sergio Lobera gave me the example of Jordi Alba, who had made a similar transition. He tried me out in the position in friendly games in Spain and we took it forward from there,” Dessai reminisced.

Lobera coached Alba - a regular in the Spanish national team in the left-back position - during his stint with the Barcelona academy in Spain.

“He believed I could play as a left-back. He had more belief in me than I had myself that I could do it. I think it worked out well. I am playing for the national team as a left back,” Mandar grinned.

Despite his fantastic displays for FC Goa, Mandar never quite made it into the Indian national football team till 2019. However, after an incredible 2018-19 ISL season, where Mandar -- playing in his new left back position -- captained FC Goa to another final, it was impossible to overlook him anymore.

Mandar Rao Dessai made his India debut under head coach Igor Stimac in the King’s Cup 2019 in Thailand and has been a regular in the national setup since.

Mandar played six seasons with FC Goa in the ISL before finally moving to Mumbai City FC this season, following coach Lobera.

“Mumbai are part of the City Group now and there are great visions for the club. It felt great when Lobera asked me to join him. I am happy to be part of this group,” he stated.

Before he left his home-state club, however, Mandar Rao Dessai spearheaded another piece of history, helping the Gaurs finish top of the table after the league stage in ISL 2019-20 and win the inaugural ISL Shield.

The feat also made FC Goa the first-ever Indian team to qualify for the AFC Champions League.

100 not out - now how far can Mandar extend his innings at Mumbai City?