The rise of Sahal Abdul Samad, the young midfielder from Kerala, was quick and fascinating. From playing for the Kerala Blasters reserves to making it to the Indian national team, the 23-year-old made use of all opportunities that came his way. The enthralling dribbles and passes got him the prized tag in Indian football - 'The Next Big Thing'.
But how long will Sahal Abdul Samad take to become 'The Big Thing' for club and country?
Sahal Abdul Samad rising through the ranks at Kerala Blasters
Samad's story started in the 2017-18 ISL season when David James used him as a late substitute on a couple of occasions. The local lad made his big break the following season by playing all but one game for the Kerala Blasters.
Samad became a fan-favourite in no time. He was the centre of attention and won multiple awards including the ISL Emerging Player and the AIFF Emerging Player.
Things only got better for Sahal Abdul Samad as he made his national team debut in June 2019. He has played ten matches for the Blue Tigers and played a notable role in India's famous draw against Asian champions Qatar.
However, Samad's upward trajectory hit a roadblock with the Kerala Blasters in the 2019-20 season. Despite playing 18 games, he clocked under 800 minutes, mostly out of his favourable attacking-midfield position.
In a very short time, Sahal Abdul Samad has experienced varied patches in his career. From playing in the Santosh Trophy to being a part of the Kerala Blasters reserves, he has gone through all the tough phases of an Indian footballer.
A splendid season with the Kerala Blasters in the 2018-19 ISL brought him more attention. Under Eelco Schattorie, he overcame the hurdles in his path, exploring new positions and facing stronger opposition.
The summer of 2020 witnessed Sandesh Jhingan bid farewell to the Kerala Blasters. The six-year-long journey that saw the defender grow leaps and bounds is an one that will be cherished by Kerala fans.
The club's followers have already acknowledged that Samad is the man to fill in the emotional void left behind by Jhingan. Being one of the early products of the Kerala Blasters youth system, his rise through the ranks was closely observed by many.
This, in addition to Kerala's love for their local talent, makes the attacking midfielder an unchallenged favourite in the state.
The club management has also realised the qualities the player brings to the table. A new contract, keeping him at the club till 2025, is a clear recognition of Samad's skills and prowess. With several clubs including Bengaluru FC interested in him, a new deal was the Blasters' way of halting a possible transfer.
Kibu Vicuna's lethal weapon in the middle
With everything outside the field settled in favour of the India international, Samad can focus on his game without distractions. The only question that remains is how Kibu Vicuna will use the Kannur-born player.
The Spanish coach has multiple attacking options in the centre in the form of Facundo Pereyra, Sergio Cidoncha and Arjun Jayaraj. Owing to this abundance of options, deploying Samad on the flanks or as a second-half substitute will be a risky bet for the new coach as he performs at his best in midfield.
The midfielder has time and again proved that he is in his best shape when given adequate time and freedom in the field. It is this openness that has helped the Kerala Blasters midfielder rob the ball off the best in the league. Dodging past defenders and creating space out of nowhere are also traits Samad has mastered over time.
A season with regular game time and a playing style favourable to him are the only things he needs to reach his full potential. If Kibu Vicuna can make good use of the midfielder, Sahal Abdul Samad's transition into a complete player will happen sooner rather than later.
And as things stand, the best time for the Keralite to change gears will be the in the upcoming season of the ISL.Published 10 Oct 2020, 15:09 IST