Dheeraj Moirangthem did not like crowds. When he was nine, he did not enter his school’s football ground because there were too many people there. So he chose the secluded badminton hall. The silent indoor stadium became his refuge during the early years of his boarding school. Badminton, he felt, also complemented his personality — introverted, impassive.
On the field, however, the shy Manipur boy turns into a beast. By merely watching him in India’s first two matches of the Under-17 World Cup, it would’ve been tough to guess these character traits. When he walked off the pitch after another heroic performance against Colombia on Monday, the otherwise dispassionate Delhi crowd gave him a standing ovation. His name echoed inside the stadium, all 46,800 of them cheering him on, and had a Viking clap dedicated to him.
Goalkeepers are often overshadowed by strikers. But not this time. Even on a night when India scored its first goal at a World Cup, Dheeraj’s performance was not forgotten. And the 17-year-old, who once hated crowds, was enjoying every bit of attention. He hung around for selfies, soaked in the atmosphere and before disappearing down the tunnel, bowed to the fans with folded hands.
On TV, Bhaichung Bhutia declared him the ‘find of the World Cup’. On Twitter, former England goalkeeper David James took a note of the Manipuri’s performance. A couple of days ago, the USA U17 coach John Hackworth called him ‘exceptional.’ His Indian counterpart, Luis Norton de Matos, was the most generous: “He can play in the Premier League, in Spain… He is a fantastic goalkeeper.”
The list of hyperboles continues to grow to describe his performances so far, astonishing for someone who nearly picked up an alternate career. Dheeraj’s parents were against him playing football. His father, a businessman, wanted him to play badminton whereas his mother, who has a government job, wanted him to focus on studies. A local coach, impressed by his height and physique, lured him into playing football. “There wasn’t much support from the family so I had to convince my maternal grandmother to buy my first pair of studs,” Dheeraj recently told the AIFF.
Every Sunday, the coach organised a football clinic for children in their locality. But Dheeraj was studying at a residential school roughly 25km from his home, and would not be allowed to leave just for this. So he told the school authorities that he had a medical condition, which gave him the chance to go home every Saturday afternoon. Dheeraj played football on Sundays and would return to his school by the time his classes began at 8am on Mondays.
He practised this routine for almost a year before he was picked to play for Bisnupur district in the Manipur league. From there, he was selected for the Manipur junior team when he was 11 and travelled for a tournament in Kalyani and there was picked up for the AIFF Academy and subsequently, the under-14 team. Since then, his progression has been rapid.
Dheeraj rose through the ranks to become India’s top goalkeeper at youth level and enhanced his reputation further at the U16 Asian Championship in Goa last year, where he pulled off a string of remarkable saves. Despite his height, though, Dheeraj was prone to errors from set-pieces and that remained the biggest concern for the coaching staff coming into the World Cup. At a four-nation tournament in Mexico last August, India conceded nine goals — seven from set-pieces. “At that point, we thought it’s important to have a top goalkeeping coach,” de Matos says.
So they reached out to Paolo Grilo. The 47-year-old Portuguese was the goalkeeping coach of USA’s Major League Soccer side Philadelphia Union when Matos approached him. He has an impressive CV, having worked with the B team of Orlando City and Benfica before that. “He came for one month. And the work he achieved is incredible in terms of helping our goalkeepers improving their position and controlling space of ball,” de Matos says.
Grilo worked on Dheeraj’s movement and reading of the game while there was specific attention on using his body to deal with aerial balls. And so far, he hasn’t put a foot wrong. In both matches, he has shown tremendous authority inside the box. He has not hesitated in stepping out to close down the scoring angles for the striker and has used his strong fists to punch the ball away every time there is a shot from distance.
His ultimate test will be against Ghana. They are the most physical side in the group and their shots are venomous. But Dheeraj is unperturbed, knowing the crowd has his back. Ironic for someone who did not like crowds for the longest time growing up.
Dheeraj’s Fab Five saves
-Akinola plays through ball again. This time, Josh Sargent is one-on-one. Dheeraj steps out again to close Sargent’s angles. The Werden Bremen target’s shot hits Dheeraj on the chest. Another danger averted.
– US’s Ayo Akinola plays a through ball between the left-back and central defender. Striker Andrew Carleton is released one-on-one but Dheeraj anticipates the danger. He steps out and lunges forward. His left leg gets the ball first and it goes out of play.
– From the edge of the box on the right, Akinola plays a square pass to Carleton. His shot is low and angled towards the far post. Dheeraj dives and manages to get a strong hand on it, which is crucial because it was heading goalwards and Tim Weah was lurking behind, just in case.
– Yadir Meneses takes a snapshot from the edge of penalty area. It is at an awkward height towards the goalie’s left and on target. Dheeraj dives and palms it away towards the touchline.
– With India pressing high in search for an equaliser, Colombia attack on counter. A long ball is played towards Juan Penaloza, who runs between the two central defenders. Dheeraj is swift to leave his lines, gets to the ball, outside the box, before the attacker and heads it to safety. A perfect sweeper-keeper.