ISL 2018-19: Kerala Blasters' Sahal Samad draws inspiration from 'Ozil of Kerala' tag
You have seen him on the pitch. You have all chanted his name. And you have seen how he splits rival defences with his delightful through balls.
Any comparison with a great footballer always adds pressure on a player but for Kerala Blasters' Sahal Samad, the tag 'Ozil of Kerala' inspires him to do more.
Sahal, only 21 and moving up the ranks at Blasters and passes' charts in the Indian Super League (ISL), has been impressive for David James' side this season.
Even though Kerala Blasters have had mixed results and are currently seventh on the table with just one win and four draws in seven matches, Sahal has been exceptional. His link-up play with the forwards, interception skills and pinpoint through balls have made him a hot property in Indian football already. And Manjappada, the Kerala Blasters' fan group, have already coined a name for the talented midfielder after Arsenal's Mesut Ozil.
"Kerala Blasters' fans call me Ozil? Wow, that's a nice thing to hear. And when I hear a positive comment like this, I get more confident to do better for the team," Sahal said in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda.
While Sahal is enjoying the fans' love, the same cannot be said about teammate CK Vineeth. The former Bengaluru FC striker was at the receiving end of the fans' wrath for missing a sitter against BFC and later taking a dig on social media against the Manjappada for their harsh comments.
"Manjappada is a group that loves football and is Kerala’s strength. I feel such a group will never harass the players. Support us as you always do. Manjappada’s support and prayers are our strength. There is nothing more to say about how much Manjappada means to us players. Everyone knows it. Our fans are very energetic. Even if lose a match and lose the spirit, they don’t. They always back us up."
All that doesn't distract Sahal from his game though. The midfielder, who studied at NIMS in Al Ain, UAE, is a favourite of coach James and is improving at a tremendous rate for Blasters.
"I started my football career from my school days, being part of the school team from my 3rd grade. My schooling was at NIMS at Al Ain, UAE and their school team was my first team in football," Sahal said.
"Training under David James is so cool and he's a friendly coach. In case we commit mistakes, he corrects, supports and rectifies it. There is no special role assigned to me. I can play with a player’s freedom under him, without any kind of pressure. And that has helped me thrive."
The 2018/19 season has seen the emergence of Sahal but he started off by coming on as a substitute to Dimitar Berbatov last season. After that, he spent some time with the Kerala Blasters' reserves and finished with an impressive campaign in the Second Division League, notching up 6 goals in 6 matches.
The secret to his improvement, Sahal says, is his family's backing.
"I’m here just because of my family’s support. Each member of my family has played some sport at one point or another. My father and brother were volleyball players. Another brother of mine is a footballer. What I am today is all because of their support and prayers. Of course, they call me before and after each game and tell me how I played. My family and relatives are also into football now," Sahal said.
"If not football, I had a desire to become a physiotherapist. Joining college, I chose BBA and it has all changed.
"Talking about my debut last season, it was a special moment. Actually, I was really tensed and nervous about coming on. Many people even pointed out that I was tensed. But it was my first match and that’s why (I was nervous). Moreover, coming on as a sub for the great Berbatov is a proud and special moment for me," he added.
Sahal does have a favourite moment in the ISL - the opening day win against ATK. That has been the Blasters' only victory so far but Sahal hopes the team is able to pull up its socks in the remaining games.
"My favourite match is the opening match this season. We won it 2-0. That was a good start," Sahal said.
"We believe that the results in the remaining matches will be favourable for us and we will train for that," he added.