Sanjeev Stalin - India U-17's dead-ball specialist curving his way into the nation's hearts

Anselm Noronha/Goal
Sanjeev Stalin has rode into the hearts of Indian football aficionados with dead-ball brilliance, and is aiming for success at the U17 World Cup...

The late, great David Bowie was famously quoted as saying, "Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming."

The 'Ziggy Stardust' and 'Starman' singer was then hinting at a contemporary setting of society to his multitude of fans and emulators. For Sanjeev Stalin, just added 'see and feel' to the citation  this seems to be the verse in the gospel of perseverance he swears by as the kick-off to the U-17 World Cup 2017 approaches.

Born in January 2001, Stalin is one amongst 21 gems under Luis Norton's tutelage in the final Indian U17 team slated to participate in the first ever age-group football World Cup to be hosted in the subcontinent.

As the hope, pressure and expectation blossom to burdensome freight - the prayers of close to a billion - the Bengaluru-born player is keeping his shoulders firmly squared and eyes firmly on the ball as he hopes to help his team deal with every possible opponent they face.

In an exclusive Interview with Goal, the ambidextrous defender, reveals his penchant for dead balls while also expressing his love interest on the field of play.

It's to be noted here that the fledgling was 11 years-old when Chandigarh Football Academy (FA) welcomed him into the fold, after he was spotted by a former East Bengal and Mohun Bagan player Jamshid Nassiri at an U13 tournament in the Information Technology (IT) capital. Moulded into the player he is today by Harjinder Singh, a former India and Jagjit Cotton and Textile Mills (JCT) professional, Stalin seems keen to spread his wings and fly, but not without due reference to his coaches.

"Firstly, I'd like to believe my stint at the Chandigarh academy is the biggest factor in contribution to my development so far. The coaches were very supportive, as they wanted not just me, but every player in the academy to progress. They gave individual attention to all the pupils in the academy. Harjinder Singh sir was vital in aiding my development," began the polite Blue Colt, when quizzed on his developmental chart.

He further added, "They focused on improving my qualities, as they knew the older we get, the we lesser we tend to learn new attributes such as control. We can improve on our speed but not control."

The Manchester United Premier Cup (MUPC) is a feather in the cap for all the participant teams, be it from any part of the world. Stalin was one amongst a host of pupils to be selected to participate in the tournament's South Asian leg finals in Thailand.

Though unable to participate due to illness, the very experience of being selected proved to Stalin what his capability actually was. "Even at this point in time I see players such as Daniel Lalhimpuia and Nishu Kumar at Bengaluru, the seniors who'd been selected into the MUPC team - with whom I played and gained a lot of experience from - and I feel happy. "

"When I was a junior, then three juniors got selected for the senior team in the MUPC Cup competition, by Harjinder Sir. After getting selected, we (three juniour finalists in the team) got even more confident in our abilities and I thought, "I have shown the right set of qualities to get here." Everything changed from that point onwards!"

As 'big beat' conceptualizer and Disc Jockey Fatboy Slim once sang, "You've come a long way, baby," Stalin has progressed leaps and bounds to make it as one of India's poster boys ahead of their big World Cup bow. 

Turning focus to the national team, Nicolai Adam parted ways with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) after spending close to two years at the helm of the India Under-17 team as their head coach. The Portuguese Luis Matos de Norton was brought in to replace him.

Questioned if a change in coaches had affected his role in the team, Stalin replied in the negative. "No, (I've had) no role changes under Luis Matos sir from Nicolai Adam. He (Matos) already knew my qualities and is constantly playing me, which is a big plus. I don't believe my style has changed but my game has. With respect to my overall game, I'm not overconfident. I'm just confident and in love with the ball. I just want to showcase my skill whenever I get the ball," he replied with an air of romanticism.

The Colt was effusive in his praise for Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the India U-17 team Abhishek Yadav, a former national team player himself, who has been a rock of support for his players.

"Abhishek (Yadav) sir is one of the reasons the team how the team was put together and he keeps everyone united. The head coach is also working a lot with us and we have improved a lot."

Stalin GFX

To many who've observed him, it's clear that the Indian full-back has a certain level of comfort with dead-balls that he exudes greater than his teammates. A clear demonstration of this would be the stunner he netted with aplomb versus the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while participating in the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) U-16 championships hosted in the Konkan, last year. Churning in a free-kick from an acute angle on the left-side of the box, Stalin's ripper flew in the left hand post of the UAE keeper, prompting celebrations of ecstacy from his teammates.  

"Yes, we are concentrating on set-pieces because they will be important during the World Cup. Goal scoring from set-pieces is a possibility and the team can then concentrate on defending to gain three points," expressed the 16-year-old, when pressed on the importance of set-piece at the World Cup. He goes on to mention that most of the goals scored today in world football are through set-pieces.

Adding that opportunities must be taken without a flicker of doubt on the big stage, the defender stated he was leaving no stone unturned in his preparation.

"We practice on set-pieces everyday, whether it's the right-side or the left. We can't be certain on which side we'll get a set-piece advantage on match day. I'm now confident and training with both feet. In the World Cup, we'll only get one ball to deliver and convert. So I'm working hard on that aspect of my game."

India's U-17 side showed sluggishness while being pounded by a well-drilled Mexican U-17 team in a four-nation tournament in Mexico, but showed reignited resilience when facing Chile's U-17 representatives, battling for a 1-1 draw.

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Opining that Matos' assistant coach aided them in making massive improvements during the tournament, Sanjeev stated, "After the Mexico and Chile match, Hugo Santos paid a lot of attention to the transition of play - from attack to defence and vice versa. He told us where to improve individually, and we also analyzed a lot of videos. We were told in training what we do wrong and he makes sure we improve through qualitative feedback. It is a big confidence booster to us, because we can now pay with a lot of confidence."

Having come this far in his career in such a short space of time, the ball is firmly in Sanjeev's court to place himself as an idol for the future footballers of tomorrow from the vibrant southern Indian city.

Watch Sanjeev Stalin and the India U17 team in action on Sony Ten 2 and Sony Ten 3 - the official broadcaster of the FIFA U17 World Cup!