India’s young goalkeeping sensation Dheeraj Singh has decided to quit the I-League after planning to try his luck in Europe. Indian football in the past one year has undergone a change of sorts with players coming up from different spheres to prove their mettle. As India hosted the country’s first ever FIFA World Cup, the Indian U-17 took the top stage but failed to pocket a win in what was an abysmal campaign for coach Luis Norton de Matos and the Blue cubs. Following the World Cup, the U-17 stars were offered to ply their trade in the Indian top flight with a new team namely Indian Arrows. Dheeraj was among the few who bagged the headlines in the FIFA U-17 World Cup with his sharp goal protection and continued to perform on top of his game for the Arrows in the I-League. Now that he has set his eye on a dream move outside India, Matos is not happy with the way things have unfolded in the saga.

No coach would be a happy man after losing out unarguably one of the best player in his side in the middle of an important campaign. Rahul KP and Dheeraj Singh have been the outstanding performers for the Indian Arrows so far this season but only one of them turned up against the mighty East Bengal earlier today as the Kolkata giants easily outclassed the Arrows 2-0 with the help of goals from Mahmoud Al-Amna and Katsumi Yusa. Attacking midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna opened the scoring for East Bengal with a superb curling free-kick in the 13th minute. Japanese star Katsumi Yusa doubled the lead with another excellent finish in the 16th minute. The victory saw East Bengal increase their lead at the top of the table with 17 points from eight matches, opening up a four-point gap with second-placed Minerva Punjab FC. India Arrows, on the other hand, remained at the seventh spot with seven points in their kitty. East Bengal started the proceedings on an attacking note, asking constant questions from the Indian Arrows defence which was left clueless time and again.

Yusa, who was the key man for East Bengal in the midfield, controlling the ball well and creating chances in the initial minutes, was brought down by Arrows defender Boris Singh Thangjam on a couple of occasions. However, that did not change East Bengal’s approach as they continued to dominate possession and made good use of their superior experience. In the process, Yusa was brought down by a silly challenge by Arrows midfielder Abhishek Halder at the edge of the penalty box in the 12th minute which gifted East Bengal a free kick.

Criticising Dheeraj’s decision of quitting the team in between of the campaign, Matos said he is “perhaps not taking the right decision of his career” and that it would have been prudent on his part to play in the I-League to “gain more experience”. “I don’t think Dheeraj is ready to play in Europe. There are often many people around the players — the agents, advisors who don’t know what is the best process for the development of a player. The best move for Dheeraj is to play in the league and then he should have taken the trials,” Matos said.

“After the I-League, he would have had the experience of playing 12-13 matches and that would have given him more confidence to take these trials. Now, it’s time for another goalkeeper to belong to the Arrows,” he added.
The Arrows certainly missed Dheeraj’s absence in the squad as they were floored by East Bengal. The Manipur goalie was an integral part of the team and is lined up to trial for a host of Premier European clubs like West Ham United (English Premier League) and the Toronto FC in the MLS. Reports suggest that the 17-year-old will also be testing his skills at Motherwell FC (Scottish Premiership), and English 2nd tier clubs Charlton Athletic Club and Blackburn Rovers.

Dheeraj was offered a fresh 3 years contract by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) but he declined the offer with the suggestions from his agents. He is still 17 and will have to wait until September to turn play for any club as per the FIFA guidelines. Explaining why Dheeraj has opted for a wrong move, Matos told TOI that Dheeraj should have instead played for some more time in the Indian league and then solidify his skills for the trials. He also reckoned how he will have to wait for 7-8 months without any competitive football outside India.
De Matos said that even if Dheeraj gets selected in the trials, he will have to wait till September, until he turns 18, to play for any club. According to FIFA rules, international transfers of under-18 players are not allowed unless their parents have moved to the same country in which the new club is associated. “This would mean he will have to wait 7-8 months without competition and only training,” he added.

(With agency inputs)