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Nongdamba Naorem arrives with a dream goal

Nongdamba Naorem (left) after scoring against Shillong Lajong at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi.
Nongdamba Naorem (left) after scoring against Shillong Lajong at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi.

It was the kind of goal dreams are made of.

The striker picked up the ball on the left flank and, cutting inside, wrong-footed two defenders before coming up another block of two, one a burly South Korean and the other a Nigerian. He dodged both men and glided past another centre-back from Africa -- Lawrence Doe had his hands up, probably making sure he didn't trip his man up -- before releasing a cheeky shot past an onrushing goalkeeper.

Nongdamba Naorem, the 17-year-old striker from Manipur, had well and truly arrived in the I-League with this, the second of three goals the Indian Arrows put past fourth-placed Shillong Lajong at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi on Tuesday.

"I love to dribble the ball," Nongdamba, who came on as a second-half substitute, told ESPN later. "First moment when I got the ball, I didn't get much of the ball. So when I got it, I thought I will play with it myself and I saw the defender coming with me. I was thinking of only dribbling and I can't even imagine I scored. It's like a dream come true for me."

It's a pattern one has come to expect from Nong, as his coaches and teammates call him. A second-half substitute in both of India's first two matches at the U-17 World Cup in October, his ability to weave in and out and take on defenders saw him trouble both the U.S. and Colombia, before he was handed his first start by coach Luis Norton de Matos against Ghana.

"Man, Messi-like goal, man, Messi-like! He's not been given enough opportunities," said Minerva Punjab owner Ranjit Bajaj, at whose academy Nongdamba came to prominence and from where earned selection to the U-17 team after Minerva Academy beat the U-17 World Cup team in a friendly in the first few days of De Matos taking charge. "The entire Minerva team was watching and having lunch together, and the entire team was just going crazy over this goal. Six or seven of my players have played with him, and he had tried this against the U.S. in the first match and he beat three people, but couldn't get past the fourth one."

Bajaj said that when the "reserved" Nongdamba first came to Minerva Academy, he was a dejected young man following a spell at an academy of one of the erstwhile I-League clubs, not having had enough opportunities of playing in his preferred role of a striker. "When he came to us, for the first two months all we did was just work on his psyche, we just made sure that he believed. Once he got that right, there was no looking back," Bajaj said of a breakthrough performance in the Administrators Challenge Cup in Chandigarh in September 2016, where Nongdamba led the charge for Minerva with 20 goals, including 18 in the group stages. "Normally we would always convince someone [like him] to pass, but we never stopped this guy because we saw that he has the capability of doing it. In practice, he would do it nine times out of 10, and that means he can also do it in a match. This guy is proving it, and that's why he has the knack of trying it at the World Cup as well."

Nongdamba said, "After the World Cup, the coach [De Matos] told me before the AFC Championship, 'When you get the ball, don't just dribble. Try to get a penalty or try to shoot. You could have scored two-three goals in the World Cup.' He always asked me to keep this in mind. He always [told] me to shoot the ball." Nongdamba also credited Indian Arrows assistant coach Floyd Pinto, who was standing in on Tuesday, for encouraging him to "take the ball and create something".

"I dribble because I want to create space for our players, so that all players attack me and I can pass to someone," he said. "But till I can score, it is good for me."

And did the prospect of coming up against the physical presence of international players like Oh Joo Ho (South Korea), Odafin Daniel (Nigeria) and Doe (Equatorial Guinea) not play on his mind? "I thought [about] that from before, from the bench only," he said. "I knew they were strong as well, but if people are strong also, most people like Messi score [despite that]. Football is not just about physical [strength] it is about intelligence as well."

(With additional reporting from Debayan Sen)

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