The talented Dheeraj Singh says being called for the Indian football team camp, which gave him an opportunity to train with the country’s top goalkeepers, acted as huge motivation prior to his brilliant showing for FC Goa in the AFC Champions League.
The 20-year-old Dheeraj, who has been twice named in the Champions League’s team of the week, played a big part in helping FC Goa secure a third-place finish in Group E.
Speaking to AIFF TV, Dheeraj said: “I got the national team call-up right after the ISL. It gave me the opportunity to travel with the senior team to the UAE. It was a big motivation for me to train with Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu) paaji and Amrinder (Singh) paaji.
“I was so motivated at that point that I reported straight to Goa after we came back,” he added.
It was only around two months ago that Dheeraj was called up for the national camp.
“Getting into the national team had a big impact on my confidence. Our coach also gave us a lot of confidence, taking the pressure off from our shoulders. He just told us to go out there and play our normal game, and that’s what we did,” added Dheeraj.
With FC Goa being India’s first-ever representative in the Champions League group stage, Dheeraj and his teammates had their task cut out against some of Asia’s best.
They had to deal with 2020 Champions League runners-up Persepolis FC (Iran), Al Wahda FC (UAE), and Al Rayyan SC (Qatar).
However, the young goalkeeper got two clean sheets to his name, making 19 saves from his five appearances.
“I still remember when the AFC Champions League started, many of my friends asked whether I was ready, and how many goals I expected to concede,” said Dheeraj.
“We came up as a very strong team that was disciplined and difficult to score against. We did really well in the first two games, and that really gave us confidence to go forward for the rest of the matches.
“I think it was the benefit of playing the ISL, that we had moved forward together, and could perform at that level.”
Dheeraj received compliments from opposition coaches, including the likes of French World Cup winner Laurent Blanc, who was in charge of Al Rayyan.
During the last group match between FC Goa and Al Wahda, Dheeraj had to be substituted due to an injury on his throat while making a save.
With the match still on, Al Wahda’s renowned coach Henk ten Kate proceeded to the opposition technical and showered praises on the young Indian for his heroics under the bar.
“I still remember, he came over to our side of the dugout and shook my hand, and gave me a lot of good words. I was not able to speak much because my throat was really painful, and I could only muster a soft ‘thank you’,” recalled Dheeraj.
“It felt very good to be praised by such a high-profile and respected coach. But I was also sad that I was not able to continue in the game.”