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Why Hyderabad FC’s Showstopper in the ISL 2021-22 Final is Not in Igor Stimac’s India Squad

Laxmikant Kattimani should be thanked for one simple reason -- he single handedly made a highly forgettable Indian Super League (ISL) final immensely memorable. The Hyderabad FC vs Kerala Blasters match was a low-key affair, devoid of much excitement and didn’t have much to offer to the huge crowd, except when the goalkeeper stepped up to save three penalties in the tie-breaker.
Hyderabad FC goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani ISL 2021-22 final vs Kerala Blasters

Laxmikant Kattimani of Hyderabad FC makes a save during the Indian Super League (ISL) final against Kerala Blasters FC on Sunday.

Laxmikant Kattimani’s brilliant performance under the bar in the Indian Super League (ISL) final tie-breaker took lots of people by surprise. But not Tanumoy Bose.

“Kattimani played under me in both under-16 and under-19 national teams. I always found him good with spot kicks because of his better sense of anticipation. So, I was confident he would do well in the tie-breaker. But of course, I didn’t expect him to save three penalties,” said Tanumoy, a former India custodian and one of the country’s finest goalkeeper coaches at the moment.

Goa-born Kattimani showed lots of promise at the start of his career. After a successful stint with the India under-16 squad, he graduated to the under-19 team and soon earned the confidence of then coach Colin Toal, who fielded him ahead of Jagroop Singh in the Asian championships. 

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It would be unfair on Kattimani to say that he failed his mentors. If Toal and Tanumoy had high hopes for the youngster, they had their doubts too. “I Never had problems with his skills, but coaches always demand taller boys for that position,” said Tanumoy. He pointed out that in the 2010 Asian Games, a dozen players to the national team came from the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) academies and Kattimani was one of them. But he didn’t get much time on the pitch because Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was the first-choice custodian of coach Sukhwinder Singh. It happened in the SAFF championship too when Arindam Bhattacharya received the preference.

True, Kattimani, perhaps, didn’t achieve what he should have been. His contemporaries, like Sandhu or Amrinder Singh, played bigger roles in Indian football, both at the domestic and international level. Yet, in the ISL final between Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters on Sunday, Kattimani did enough to erase all the memories of his so-called failures -- no other player in the history of ISL could ever reduce the title round match to a one-man show like this.     

Stopping three spot kicks in the final of a major tournament is an extraordinary feat, almost unheard of in Indian football. It happened once before, in the 1994 Federation Cup final and interestingly at the same Fatorda pitch, where Kattimani stunned the spectators.

The final was played between Mohun Bagan and Salgaocar FC. In the semi-final Salgaocar converted 12 penalty kicks in a row to beat Dempo in a marathon tie-breaker. So, when the referee called for the tie-breaker after 120 minutes of goalless tussle in the final, Salgaocar were the natural favourites. To add to Mohun Bagan woes, they had their senior goalkeepers injured. The third-choice custodian Shanti Majumdar was pushing 30 and hardly played a match in the season. But on that fateful afternoon, he played like a man possessed and stopped first three spot kicks to fashion Mohun Bagan’s 3-0 victory.

Also Read | What Jamshedpur FC’s Indian Super League Triumph Means for Indian Football

There is, however, a difference here. Kattimani’s superlative display wasn’t a one-off show like Majumdar. He had been playing well from the start of the season and reserved his best for the final. In between, in the league phase, he truly excelled against ATK Mohun Bagan, packed with national team footballers. At the same time, Kattimani was indeed lucky -- had the goal he conceded in the scheduled time of the final decided the fate of the match, it could have been a career-threatening blow for the Hyderabad FC goalkeeper.

Will this consistency help Kattimani get a national call? Unlikely. Two weeks ago, national coach Igor Stimac named a truckload of probables for the national camp. Among the 38 called for the camp, five are goalkeepers – Kattimani’s name doesn’t figure there. Stimac kept his faith in tried and tested men like Sandhu and Amrinder and added youngsters like Dheeraj Singh, Prabhshukhan Gill and Mohammed Nawaz. Kattimani, at 32, clearly doesn’t have a future at the international level under Stimac. 

The Croatian coach can’t be blamed for this. If he is trying to raise the best combination for the Asian Cup qualifiers, then he also has the responsibility to identify his men for the future. Kattimani doesn’t fit into his scheme of things. 

But there are some ifs and buts involved in it. Did the two automatic choices – Sandhu and Amrinder – could earn the needed confidence in the just-finished ISL? Perhaps not. Gill certainly did a commendable job, but Dheeraj and Nawaz were far from their best. Interestingly, Kattimani and Rehenesh TP of Jamshedpur FC looked impressive, though they were not considered.

Hyderabad FC coach Manuel Marquez didn’t get into this debate. After the final, he said: “In these two years, he is one of the best goalkeepers in India. Kattimani practically didn’t make any mistakes this season.” 

He further said: “I have said it last year, and I will repeat it again. He is the best goalkeeper fitting our style of play. He is not only good in goal, but can play with his feet too. If given a chance, I would choose Kattimani as the best goalkeeper.” It wasn’t hard to understand why Marquez restricted himself within the periphery of his own team.

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All said and done, Kattimani should be thanked for one simple reason -- he single handedly made a highly forgettable final immensely memorable. The match was a low-key affair, devoid of much excitement and didn’t have much to offer to the huge crowd.

The presence of the spectators in big numbers was the best part of the match. Most of them came all the way from Kerala hoping their favourite team Kerala Blasters would be third time lucky in the final. But for the equaliser at the fag end of the match, the trophy was almost theirs. Hyderabad lived up to their tradition of finding the net at the closing stages and Sahil Savola once again proved to be the super sub. His strike was brilliant, one of the best in the entire tournament. 

Post 2014, the Indian football season has gone shorter and shorter. Tournaments have died, traditional clubs have folded up. India’s top division football is now a one-meet wonder -- country’s best players spent more time on training than playing competitive matches. The situation is alarming, but the system is passed on as the best to improve the standard of the game. This season, too, there was no time or place to watch the upcoming players on the big stage. Barring a few, Stimac has called mostly known faces to the preparatory camp. 

The real test will be the Asian Cup qualifiers. Thankfully, India have been placed in a relatively easy group and they are playing at home. All the relentless PR mechanisms that worked overtime in the past few months, will render meaningless if things go wrong in Kolkata in June.

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