Elite League: World Cup snub helped me become what I am today, says FC Pune City's rising defender Nikhil Prabhu
Among the 63 teams that are part of the Hero Elite League, FC Pune City's Under-18 side finished their zonal round in the most dominating fashion - with 27 points in 10 games.
Apart from scoring a flurry of goals - 31 so far, Pune have conceded just 6 goals and a lot of the credit for that has to go to the defence, with mainstay Nikhil Prabhu playing an influential role.
Pune had only one loss in their entire Maharashtra Zonal campaign and came into the final round as one of the favourites.
Pune, placed in Group A along with MSP Football Academy, FC Goa and Sudeva Football Club, currently top the standings following a 2-1 win over Sudeva.
And ahead of their second group game against FC Goa, central defender Nikhil says each one's contribution to the side has seen them come out on top so far.
"This season has been really great so far for me," Nikhil said. "I have scored one and the team has managed to keep 6 clean sheets from 10 games we have played across the Youth I-League zonal round.
"It’s our coaches and mentors who have helped us to stick as one unit where everyone contributes their best and makes each other’s job easy.
"Our focus is to approach each game at a time. We are working very hard towards our goal and each team member is giving more than 100 per cent on and off the field."
Nikhil, in nine appearances, has also scored once for Pune and has maintained a rock-solid wall that has kept the opposition attack at bay.
All that composure stems from the experience of playing about 35 games in the last season for PIFA (Premier India Football Academy), where he turned out for the MDFA League, U-18 Y-League and Santosh Trophy. Interestingly, Nikhil was the youngest from Maharashtra at 16 to play the Santosh Trophy.
"The talent expectations in the MDFA, U-18 League and Santosh Trophy is at a different level and every single minute, you are expected to perform. I won't say it is difficult but it is indeed very competitive.
"I can't forget the previous season because I scored a match-winning goal against Manipur in the Santosh Trophy. I was fortunate enough to have represented the Maharashtra team as one of the youngest players.
"To be honest, what I have learnt is age is just a number. If you can believe and continue to push yourself challenging your limits, you’ll eventually get there. Being the youngest player in the squad, I was waiting for my chance and was always determined to give my best.
"Before that, The MDFA U-18 League in 2017 was one of the most special seasons for me because I was recognized as the Best Defender. This really helped me in boosting my morale and encouraged me to do even better."
From PIFA, Nikhil joined the Pune this year and has established himself as one of the upcoming centre-backs in the Indian system. Nikhil even tried out for India's FIFA Under-17 World Cup team but the snub has encouraged him to do better. Playing under former India captain Mehrajuddin Wadoo at FC Pune City now, the sky is the limit for Nikhil.
"The setup of Pune city aims to develop young players and produce an increasing number of youth players for the main team/ISL team," Nikhil said. "The coach and the team management are working very hard on it by providing the right direction and opportunities to the players.
"Yes, it was disappointing to have been left out, but this also helped me understand where I stand and how much work I’ve got to put in to get to where I’m today," Nikhil added.
"I'm playing under Wadoo sir now, someone who has been an inspiration to me and everyone in the team. Having someone with his experience means so much to all of us. His advice is to always work hard and let our football do the talking. It is an honour to have Wadoo sir leading us."
Nikhil started the game at the age of nine and represented Gujarat in his initial days. He moved to Mumbai to explore more opportunities in football and soon after, made the Mumbai FC U-14 squad. He has gradually moved up the ranks and aims to represent the national team one day.
"In 5 years, I want to be an established player and also continue being a good human," Nikhil said. "I’m confident that it isn’t impossible to get there. My dream is to certainly compete at the highest level and represent my nation one day.
"Nothing worth having comes easy. It's all about how much of a fight you are ready to put in to get there and deliver."