On July 7, 2019, when India began their Hero Intercontinental Cup campaign in Ahmedabad against Tajikistan, an 18-year old defender – Narender Gahlot – made his International debut. He would then go on to score the Blue Tigers’ opening goal against Syria nine days later, finding the net with a towering header in just his second International start.
Almost a year on from the moment, Narender in a chat with AIFF Media reflects on his time in India colours – from his junior days to playing for the senior team, his learnings, developing a ‘sense of responsibility’, and much more.
One year has passed since you made your senior India debut. How do you look back?
It’s been a year for learning. I got my National Team debut at 18 wherein I got to share the dressing rooms with so many of my idols. It was a wonderful experience. Looking back it feels great. But there’s no way I can stop there.
Do you feel there is a sense of responsibility now?
Definitely. The onus is on me now to remain consistent in my game and keep working hard to improve. I want to give my best for the country and make our fans’ dreams come true.
What key learnings do you take away from your time with the Blue Tigers so far?
The biggest learning has been that everyone makes mistakes. But it is critical not to repeat them. As a defender I know which areas I need to improve on and the seniors guide us a lot in that respect as well.
They are extremely focused and disciplined in all aspects, which makes them a great example to follow. When it’s time to have fun, we have fun as well but when it comes down to business, they are really serious.
For example, Sandesh (Jhingan) paji plays with a warrior-like attitude during matches and is very aggressive. In training, he gives his 100% at all times and is physically very strong, which is something I try to emulate. He also shares his experiences with us from time-to-time, from which we learn.
Sunil (Chhetri) bhai is such an inspiration for all of us and gives us all invaluable advice. He told me to be aggressive when I am without the ball. When I have the ball, I have to be extremely calm and avoid mispasses. And when I am passing to the midfield or to my wing-backs, the weight of the pass has to be precise and the direction has to be perfect as well. Otherwise, the pressure will come back on the central defenders.
You first represented India at U-16 level back in 2016. How important do you consider that time to be in your growth?
My time at the AIFF Academy with the junior India team holds a special place in my heart and helped lay the foundation for my game. The exposure we got was excellent as we got to face so many quality sides and grow as players and as a team. Most importantly, that time made me realize the importance of hard work.
Your favourite memories from those days?
I vividly remember when we faced Iran in the AFC U-16 Championship 2016 in Goa and then played Brazil as well. These two matches will remain etched in my memory forever.
You were also a key member of the Indian Arrows side in the 2018-19 Hero I-League season, which finished eighth on the points table. What do you take away from that campaign?
I came into the side determined to make a mark and wanted to set the tone right from pre-season. We had camps in different European countries such as Spain, Serbia, etc, which really helped the team evolve.
We knew that it would be a challenge physically but right from the start, our focus was on ball possession. We knew that the more we keep the ball, and lesser the body-to-body contact, the better it is for us. We gelled really well as a team — both on and off the field — and fought till the very end in each game.
How have you spent your time at home during this COVID-19 lockdown? Any new skills you’ve developed?
It’s been a challenging time for everyone in the world and I have tried to make the best use of the free time. I managed to source some gym equipment from my friends and have been using it for my daily workouts. Cycling is also another activity that I have enjoyed.
At home, I contribute my bit in the daily chores and we even made some sweet dishes such as kaaju katli, gulab jamun and jalebis. Of course, I could not indulge in eating it too much as I have to take care of my diet as well! (laughs).