NEW DELHI: As has been the case throughout the U-17 World Cup, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem stood out on Friday, as the players prepared to leave the team hotel for their homes. All the other players were being taken on the team bus to the airport. Dheeraj's family, though, was at the hotel with a car to pick him up. Dheeraj went to the security guards at the door with a smile and shook their hands. For someone who had 50,000 people chanting his name just hours ago, he looked amazingly grounded.
No Indian player had a better World Cup than the goalkeeper. Anwar Ali and Jeakson Singh might have caught the eye, but nobody unified opinion like Dheeraj. On TV, Bhaichung Bhutia was calling him the find of the tournament. On Twitter, former England goalkeeper David James was namedropping him. At post-match interactions, opposition managers were hailing his quality. In the stands, the crowds were going crazy every time he made a save. Not bad for someone who, not so long ago, thought badminton would be a better idea.
The biggest praise came from India's goalkeeping coach Paulo Grilo. The Portuguese apparently had one final session with Dheeraj the day after the Ghana game. Together they watched an assortment of clips of Dheeraj's performances in the tournament. According to AIFF officials, Grilo told Dheeraj there wasn't an occasion he had a problem with the latter's decision making.
"He did not make many spectacular saves because he did not have to," says Grilo. "Yesterday (against Ghana), there was one save. One guy took a shot and Dheeraj did not have to dive, he just punched it away. That was because his position in the field was perfect."
Grilo had been brought in by Luis Norton de Matos with just one month left for the World Cup. And now he wishes he had more time to work with Dheeraj. "I had 27 training sessions with him. But if I had this kid for one year, he would have been able to fight for a place in any team with any goalkeeper in his age group," Grilo said.
All that praise might get to a lesser player's head, but Dheeraj comes across as the same introverted, polite kid he was. What sticks out off the field is how intelligently he analyses his game. Grilo says he made Dheeraj watch a lot of videos, of every mistake he made in training and of top-class goalkeepers. After training sessions, he had homework — to analyse these videos.
Results of these analyses were evident. Take for instance his Neur-esque style of timing of clearing the ball with perfectly timed runs out of the penalty box. Dheeraj describes how much he worked on that. "Modern goalkeeping is all about the sweeper-keeper. We often have to come out. This is something I worked on a lot in the last two-three years. I was comfortable coming out during the World Cup."
Grilo also has a warning for Dheeraj. "If he returns to the Indian training methods, he will not make it. He is surely a kid of quality. But without this type of training and without proper competition, it will be difficult."
But as remote as it is, there is a chance that Dheeraj might not have to develop in India. Grilo says there were enquiries about him from European clubs, though he refuses to disclose how concrete their interest is. This doesn't guarantee anything, for 'interest' could easily be an unscrupulous agent, a potential Romeo-Fernandes-in-Brazil situation or a club looking to widen their commercial interest. But as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has shown, a good deal is not impossible.
And what does Dheeraj himself think of all this? "I just want a break right now."