Twisting & turning, Samad finds his way into team India
Had it not been for his brother, Sahal Abdul Samad would have gone through college in the UAE and football would have been restricted to Friday kickabouts. And it would only be ‘sevens’, the seven-a-side version that is the soul of the sport in Kerala. “My brother is a better player than me. It is only because he did his degree (college) in the UAE that he couldn’t do what he wished to. In the UAE, all you have is ‘sevens’ every Friday,” says Samad, 22.
“That is why my brother decided that I should come to India and do my graduation because it would help me realise my dream (play for India). That was the toughest and the best decision we made.”
Now five internationals old for India, Samad is a player captain Sunil Chhetri has a lot of time for. “If I had to pick one player from all the youngsters who have come through, it would be Sahal. He can change games,” Chhetri has said. What Chhetri, for whom Thursday’s World Cup qualifier against Oman here would be his 112th international, likes in this attacking midfielder is the ability to dribble. “I love dribbling. It is my kind of game. I know football is not just about dribbling and we have to be careful about not losing the ball but I get a lot of confidence from the support given by my teammates and coaches,” says Samad. His favourite footballer? Lionel Messi, comes the reply in a heartbeat.
Against Oman and Qatar, whom India play away on September 10, it will have to be seen how much time Samad has on the ball but about this, he is sure: India will play to win. “I think the first game is the most crucial. If we can beat them, half the job is done. Both games will be tough; we respect them but we will always play to win,” says Samad.
Samad, who gave up a career in physiotherapy to focus on football, began his career in the coastal city of Kannur in Kerala.
“Being chosen to the Kannur district’s U-21 team was the first break. Then I played for Kerala in the Santosh Trophy (2017),” he says. Kerala lost in the semi-finals to hosts Goa, but Samad got noticed.
His break came the same year, when he joined the reserve team of the ISL franchise Kerala Blasters. Expanded to 10 teams, ISL4 had Kerala Blasters finishing sixth, but Samad broke into the first team and was adjudged the competition’s emerging player. He was also given the All India Football Federation’s emerging player of the year award.
By the time, Stephen Constantine was firming up the list of probables for the 2019 Asian Cup, Samad had emerged as a contender for an India berth. He didn’t go beyond making the initial shortlist though.
“I was almost crying with joy when I saw my name on the initial list. But when I was left out, doubts crept in. I asked myself whether I was capable of playing at this level. But then I told myself, ‘Sahal, this is just the start. There will be more opportunities.’ And it helped that my family gave me support throughout,” he says.
Samad’s senior India debut came against Curacao in the King’s Cup in June. By then, Igor Stimac had taken over from Constantine, who quit after the Asian Cup.
Over the next five games, including three in the Intercontinental Cup, Samad developed a strong working relationship in the midfield with Anirudh Thapa, 21, and Amarjit Singh who is 18.
“We know our roles; for instance, Amarjit will always have our backs and encourage Thapa and me to go forward. Thapa too always tells me that I should not hesitate to move up; he and Amarjit will cover for me. I find that to be a huge encouragement to play my game. Thapa knows where I will run and I know when and where Thapa will make a run. Off the field, we are like brothers,” says Sahal.