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From U17 snub to AFC elite: Goalkeeper Mohammad Nawaz's redemption story at FC Goa

On May 16, 2019, the village of Khurai Khomidok in Imphal East, Manipur, came to a standstill to greet its favourite son.

Mohammad Nawaz had just returned from his first full season in Indian football -- in 20 months, he had gone from rejection for India's U-17 team for the World Cup to becoming FC Goa's first-choice goalkeeper. He had taken them to the ISL final, before finishing off with the Player of the Match award in the Super Cup final as Goa won their first trophy.

As Nawaz enjoyed an open-jeep ride, surrounded by friends and family, he couldn't help but remember the night of September 21, 2017, when he, then 17, vowed never to play football again.

Nawaz -- the second of four children of tempo driver Rafi, and his anganwadi (rural childcare centre) worker wife Ebemcha -- was handpicked among the U-17 World Cup probables as early as April 2013. He regularly featured in the youth teams leading up to the event, though coach Luis Norton Matos deemed the 5'9" Nawaz to be too short for international football, naming Toronto-based goalkeeper Sunny Dhaliwal ahead of him for the squad.

"I thought if I had already spent five years with this team, was the lack of height never noticed before? Those in practice would always tell me that I deserved a place in the final squad. This rankled me a lot," remembers Nawaz. "I had worked so hard, and stayed away from home and sacrificed so much. For five days, I didn't even pick up my parents' calls. I was just too ashamed of myself, and didn't know what I would say."

His cousin Yasir, Nawaz's original inspiration behind taking up football, visited the India camp and encouraged him. Dheeraj Singh, India's No. 1 at the U17 WC, was among those who persuaded Nawaz to continue. In January 2018, as Nawaz was drafted into the Goa reserves, he decided to work even harder, and "leave the rest to fate".

Former Goa coach Sergio Lobera loved building from the back, and a goalkeeper with sure feet was the missing piece of the jigsaw as the club prepared for the 2018-19 season. Lobera saw Nawaz in action, as Goa's reserves won just two of their 10 games, but the young goalkeeper kept three clean sheets, excelling at shot-stopping and exuding confidence with the ball at his feet.

Goalkeeping coach Virender Singh agreed with Lobera's decision to promote Nawaz to the first team, ahead of the seasoned Laxmikant Kattimani and Lalthuammawia Ralte. "His game and his confidence were going to suit our team perfectly. Mistakes were bound to happen, and that was something we were prepared for," Singh remembers telling Lobera. "He's young, and making mistakes is natural, but he will also recover quicker from these mistakes."

Those words rung true on debut for Nawaz, as his error led to NorthEast United's first goal in Goa's season opener. "I didn't hold that against myself," says Nawaz, who then made some smart saves as the match ended 2-2, giving him the first of five Emerging Player of the Match awards that season.

While Goa attained a reputation for flamboyant, even reckless football, Nawaz had four clean sheets -- only three others did better -- and only one team conceded fewer goals than them in the league stages. Singh encouraged Nawaz not to repeat his errors. The drill after every game, during the recovery sessions, was uniform -- win or lose, sit with the other goalkeepers and the coach and analyse every decision made on the pitch.

"I have made a lot of mistakes but I have also improved through them," he says.

In 2019-20, Nawaz kept five clean sheets as Goa won the league stage and earned the AFC Champions League group stage slot for next year, a first for Indian football. Across the last two ISL seasons, only Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh and Arindam Bhattacharya have kept more clean sheets than Nawaz. Sandhu and Singh are India regulars, and all three have some of the stingiest defences in Bengaluru FC, Mumbai City FC and ATK to work with.

Goa's free-flowing style -- with full backs an integral part of attack -- makes Nawaz stand out in comparison. He does that in spite of his short height, thanks to sharp reflexes, quick decision-making and mental fortitude. His passing and distribution make him integral to their possession-based play. Whenever any self-doubt creeps in, Singh cites the example of former Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos, who played over 100 times for his nation, including the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, despite being the same height as Nawaz.

When national coach Igor Stimac announced 43 probables for India's World Cup qualifiers for 2020 in late February, Nawaz was a notable omission from the six goalkeepers named. Time, though, is on his side. Of the six named, only Prabhsukhan Singh Gill is younger than him, while only Vishal Kaith seems likely to challenge Sandhu and Singh in the near future.

Meanwhile, Nawaz must do what Nawaz can -- work hard and improve to the stage where his India dream can no longer be ignored.

And, of course, he would be looking forward to the bragging rights of being the first Indian goalkeeper to start a match in the continent's top club competition, come 2021.

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