It is to the credit of the men who succeeded the outstanding Goan defenders Frankie Baretto and Robert Fernandes after they retired from international football, that Indian football did not suffer a void. Those men are Deepak Kumar Mondal and Mahesh Gawli. Deepak and Mahesh had the opportunity of playing alongside Baretto and Fernandes and they have surely picked up useful tricks of the trade for they are the catalysts of the team’s offensive moves. The two have remained rock-solid in defence whether at the club or state level or for the national team. While Deepak is more compact and tough, Mahesh is like a leech who can stick to an attacker and shadow him out of the game for the full 90 minutes. Deepak’s performances over the years have earned him accolades from all quarters and the Arjuna Award conferred on him is indeed deserving.
Surely, Mahesh too deserves the award and his time will come sooner rather than later. It would have been wonderful had both been awarded in the same year. The Jamshedpur-born Deepak, not surprisingly, comes from the ranks of the Tata Football Academy based in the Steel City. With the likes of the legendary Arun Ghosh — himself a star defender during his time — in charge, Deepak caught the eye with his immense talent and ability to work hard. But with the TFA team not playing many organised tournaments, Deepak did not have the chance to shine. Though he has toured many countries such as Brazil and Germany with the TFA team, he shot to fame when he switched to JCT Mills, Phagwara, in 1999.
Under Sukhwinder Singh, Deepak’s game impro­ved by leaps and bounds. ‘Sukhi’ moulded Deepak, always a tenacious tackler, into a veritable brick wall who could not easily be breached. Deepak’s selection in the Indian team came at an opportune time, as it was Sukhwinder who was at the helm of the national team then.
Fine performances saw Deepak dazzle during the 2000 Olympic Games qualifying tournament. But he produced his best when India performed well in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers. With Deepak and Mahesh virtually unbeatable, India defeated a star-studded United Arab Emirates, coached by the former France coach Henri Michel, 1-0 in Bangalore. Deepak was outstanding as he ensured that India did not concede. He was firm and timely with his tackles and his ability to spring up and head the ball away in fending off aerial sorties was crucial in keeping the UAE at bay. If India emerged triumphant on skipper Baichung Bhutia’s goal, Deepak’s contribution undoubtedly played its part too.
A glutton for work, Deepak is a superb judge of situations and can read the game well. His anticipation helps him plan his moves better and he is invariably there to intercept moves and cut off build-ups before they assume dangerous proportions. If and when he does get beaten, which is not often, Deepak has the swiftness to recover in time and avert danger. More importantly, apart from the normal fouls that are committed by any player, Deepak is clean and gentlemanly. He is not the ruffian that stoppers normally are.
In terms of ability, he reminds one of Manoranjan Bhattacharya of old but without the ill-temper. Surely Deepak compares well with the redoubtable Nigerian stopper, Samuel Omollo, who was tough but not foul-prone. Rarely has Deepak been sent off with a straight red card and that speaks volumes of his temperament. Deepak has played a large part in India’s recent — albeit limited — success. Without his presence, India might have found it difficult to win the Nehru Cup in 2007 and 2009 and the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008. Having ensured that India qualified for the Asia Cup finals in 2011, De­epak now bears the responsibil­ity of making sure that the team keeps its head high. India can depend on Deepak to deliver.