Qatar defender Assim Madibo (bottom) tackles India midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad (centre) during a match at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on 10 September. (Photo: Getty Images)
Qatar defender Assim Madibo (bottom) tackles India midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad (centre) during a match at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on 10 September. (Photo: Getty Images)

The amazing grace of Sahal

  • The young midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad has been a revelation playing in midfield for India and the Kerala Blasters
  • Following his international debut in the King's Cup tournament in June, Sahal has become one of India's most promising footballers

Igor Stimac’s first test as India coach came against Curacao in the King’s Cup in Thailand in June. Following up from a stodgy and predictable strategy employed by former coach Stephen Constantine, Indian fans expected something different, modern and adventurous. Stimac responded by naming three debutants in the starting lineup—Rahul Bheke, a marauding right-back; Brandon Fernandes, an attacking midfielder with excellent weight on the pass; and Sahal Abdul Samad, a breezy young advanced midfielder with a languid style and dribbling abilities that he had developed in 7-a-side football over the years. The youngsterwas singled out by captain Sunil Chhetri as potentially India’s next big star.

“If that guy understands the kind of potential he has, and maintains his body and keeps his head on his shoulder, he is an extremely gifted talent. Somebody who really excites me. I don’t know if you guys have watched a lot of Samad but if that guy is fit, he’s got proper talent," said Chhetri at a press conference before the tournament

Sahal Abdul Samad's stats
Sahal Abdul Samad's stats

Within the first 10 minutes of his debut, Samad was proving Chhetri right. The 22-year-old had run on to a lob from Brandon and had almost found another youngster, Lallianzuala Chhangte, in the box with a near-perfect delivery. At the half-hour mark, and trailing by two goals, Samad scampered into the box and was brought down. The penalty was converted by Chhetri. India had lost 3-1, but, by the end of the tournament, had won a few hearts with their brave new style, personified by Samad’s creative role in the midfield. He had tried his feints, the sublime drop of the shoulder, and turned on the ball with the grace of a ballet dancer. This was a new kind of midfielder, a type that the Indian national team had been missing for a while.

“Sahal means easy," the footballer, born in the United Arab Emirates, says. It’s an apt name for a player who makes the difficult seem natural. Against Curacao, Tajikistan, North Korea and Syria, Samad had passing accuracy rates of 88%, 83%, 93%, and 91% respectively, according to sports performance analysis company InStat. In his six appearances for India, he attempted eight key passes, five of which found their mark. In the history and gritty 0-0 draw against Asian champions Qatar in the recent World Cup qualifier, Samad dribbled past his challenger six out of the 10 times he attempted to do so, won eight of his 13 attacking challenges and intercepted the ball twice in the opposition half. Samad may well be an attacking midfielder or even a classic No.10, but his defensive work has increased and improved under Stimac’s system.

“My weak point has always been that I don’t track back quickly to help defenders. I take a bit of time in defensive transitions but I am working on this aspect. I love dribbling, moving forward and playing through balls—all skills which I picked up while I played 7-a-side football in the UAE," Samad says.

No one was surprised when he won the Indian Super League and All India Football Federation (Aiff) Emerging Player of the Year awards for a breakthrough 2018-19 season. Samad’s rise has not been one of rags to riches, but he had the unwavering support of his parents to pursue a football career as long as he didn’t fail in school (which he didn’t). His story, then, is one of a steady rise, from playing with his brother and his friends to joining the El Ethihad Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi, and then moving to Kerala to play university football with the confidence that he would be spotted as a top talent come what may.

“My plan B was to become a physiotherapist but I knew that choosing a BBA (bachelor’s in business administration) course would give me more time and opportunity to play university football. Once I started playing for SN College, Kannur, I got picked for the Kerala Santosh Trophy team (2017) and then I was spotted by Kerala Blasters scouts and given a reserve team contract for three years," Samad says, maintaining that he knows he’s a good player but doesn’t let that feeling go to his head. “It was shocking to get the call from Blasters, and for someone who is shy, like me, I don’t know what to do with all the attention after my India debut. It feels awkward."

“The biggest challenge was giving up burgers, pizzas, chips and soft drinks. It wasn’t a difficult choice, but it was the one lifestyle adjustment I had to make as I moved into professional football, because I had never experienced that sort of level before," he adds.

Samad says he never went to a gym before joining Kerala for the Santosh Trophy, for which the state team usually has a two-month preparatory camp. However, his fitness habits had to change if he was to make it as a professional footballer.

“We had a diet designed for him during the Santosh Trophy camps because he was slightly overweight," says V.P. Shaji, who picked Samad for the Kerala club. Shaji, an Aiff B-licence level coach, and in charge of the State Bank of India football team in Thiruvananthapuram, says: “He came in late for the open trials but he had a remarkable first touch and ability to find gaps for passes. That year, the Santosh Trophy rule was to have three U-21 players in the starting eleven and I decided to deploy him in midfield because we already had Jobby Justin up front." Jobby went on to have a breakthrough season for East Bengal in the I-League, while Samad did the same in the simultaneously running Indian Super League.

He played 17 times for the Kerala Blasters, ending the season as their second best passer and the brightest spot in an otherwise forgettable season in which they finished ninth with just two wins, seven draws and nine defeats. Samad was also their best tackler in midfield, and boasted of 688 touches over the course of the season, often carrying the weight of a disjointed team.

“When I saw him in the first season, I wasn’t too impressed. His eating habits were all over the place and he would hold on to the ball too often. He has to add more to his repertoire as a midfielder but in his second season at the Blasters, I was taken aback with the change in his attitude. He was fit, raring to go, and more disciplined. As a centre-back, it is comforting to have him ahead of me because even if I play a difficult ball to him with two men closing him down, I know he will squeeze out of that situation. India has produced some brilliant midfield destroyers but Samad has something special about him and can go a long way if he manages to keep working hard," says Sandesh Jhingan, centre-back for India and Kerala Blasters, who has observed Samad closely while playing together for club and country.

Samad’s journey may seem easy, but that is because of his talent and attitude, coupled with a national team coach who encourages players to pass the ball across the ground with attacking intent. Kerala Blasters’ new Dutch coach, Eelco Schattorie, also prefers a system in which players such as Samad are encouraged to express themselves.

“When I see youngsters who want to play passing football getting a chance in the national team and club football, it gives me great encouragement. I am confident on the ball, even though I sometimes fall into the trap of overplaying it because I love dribbling, but it comes naturally to me and I have started picking and choosing the moments to use my skill," Samad says. While his greatest quality may be pulling off what most Indian midfielders can’t, Samad’s greatest strength could also be knowing what he cannot do.

Samad is the modern prototype of an attacking midfielder—smooth, skilful, creative, ready to throw himself into tackles to help defenders. India can only hope that what can be a glittering career will inspire many to kick-start theirs in modern football. “I don’t try to do things that I don’t know," he says.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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