Raheel keen to 'strike it rich' with Indian hockey team
The 25-year-old forward from Karnataka ended a long wait to make his debut with the national squad in the FIH Pro League tournament in Bhubaneswar late last month
Mohammed Raheel Mouseen was a bundle of emotions. The 25-year-old was awash with nervousness, anxiety, joy and fear as he sat in his hotel room in Bhubaneswar on the eve of his big day–the Bengaluru player was waiting to debut for the Indian hockey team.
That was when Raheel got a call from an old friend and Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel mate, to congratulate and also remind him of a story that calmed nerves and helped him smile.
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“I didn’t even realise. I came here to watch the 2014 Champions Trophy with my hostel mates and coach. It was the first time I saw an international match,” said Raheel. “Some of our local (Karnataka) players like VR Raghunath and SK Uthappa were playing. We put in our money to travel and watched all matches, including the India-Pakistan semi-final. I was amazed by the atmosphere; I wondered what it would it be like to play at the ground.”
Eight years later, Raheel made his international debut at the Kalinga Stadium in the FIH Pro League. It was against New Zealand in a well-fought 4-3 victory late last month. Raheel also played against Spain two days later, in a 2-3 loss for India.
“I looked at the photos from when we came here. It was a special feeling to debut at the same ground,” said the player, who works with the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). “It was a dream come true. This was the moment I was waiting for and worked so hard all these years.”
Hockey runs in the blood
It wasn’t difficult for Raheel to take up hockey. His father Mohammed Naseeruddin played the game at national level for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). His elder brother Mohammed Naimuddin played for CAG and also was in junior national camps.
He represented his school hockey team, and then Raheel pushed for a hockey career when he joined the Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel academy in Bengaluru as a 15-year-old in 2012. In those four years, Raheel sharpened his skills, and gained vital exposure at national level, playing in the junior nationals and other tournaments representing Karnataka.
Raheel's performances impressed scouts at Air India, who signed a four-year contract with him in 2016. The centre striker guided Air India to the 2019 Lal Bahadur Shastri tournament title in Amritsar, finishing as the highest scorer and best player.
Raheel also helped Air India reach the senior nationals final in 2020. The team lost to Services but he ended as the highest goal-scorer and best forward. He played for Karnataka in the 2021 nationals, this time finishing with a bronze medal. The second win was particularly heartening after the ordeal during the Covid pandemic when Raheel did not even get access to the artificial turf due to the strict restrictions in Bengaluru.
Third time lucky
Raheel, whose father works with the Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL), was called up for the first time to the senior national camp in 2018. He was dropped from the camp but returned the next year. This time too he was axed after failing to impress the Indian team management.
It took him two more years of top notch performances in the domestic circuit to be called up to the national camp for a third time, earlier this year. This time Raheel made it count, impressing India chief coach Graham Reid with his skills.
The Australian coach though decided to first test him by sending him to play Hockey 5s in Lausanne, Switzerland in June. Raheel ended up as the leading scorer and Player of the Tournament. He returned to guide Karnataka to the National Games gold last month in Rajkot following which he was finally selected in the 22-member India squd for the 2022-23 Pro League season.
“You know that feeling you get when you are getting close to your dream, the restlessness, the excitement. I thought this was my last chance to get selected and worked really hard to make sure I didn’t let this opportunity slip from my hands,” said Raheel, who idolises former India internationals and state mates Arjun Halappa and VS Vinaya, who was also his coach at Karnataka.
Having realised his dream of playing for India, the next aim for Raheel, who received the ceremonial India cap from Reid ahead of debut, is to score his first goal for India.
“It was a really good match. It would have been a bit special had I scored. I was expecting to. There is always another day.”