AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: Nikhil Poojary is back in the national team after almost four years. His last outing – the 0-0 draw against Qatar in the World Cup Qualifiers in Doha in September 2019 – might have been one of India's more impressive results of recent times, but Poojary that day was left a bit dissatisfied.
"Everybody remembers that we played a top match against Qatar, which was the last time I played for the national team. But personally, when I was substituted off, I knew I hadn't played my best game. I gave my 100 per cent, but I couldn't contribute to the game in the way the team needed me. I knew I hadn't done enough to keep my place in the next camp," shared Poojary.
From then on began a journey of resurgence, one which made him more focussed than ever, with the single goal of donning the blue of India once again. "I knew that if I wanted to make a comeback, I needed to do much better. Then when Hyderabad FC was formed (in 2019), gradually my confidence and performance also grew. I hadn't received a call up then, but it was okay as I knew I had to keep working hard because the competition in the national team is very tough," said Poojary.
"If you ask anybody in the Hero ISL, their dream is to play in the national team. Obviously, the last few years were difficult, but I'm honoured to be back after four full seasons. With whatever minutes I get, I want to prove that I'm worthy of staying at this level," he added.
However, Poojary is not the same kind of player from four years ago. Operating as a winger back then, he has now found his feet in the right-back position at Hyderabad FC. "Initially, I played as a winger at HFC. Shifting to right-back was a new experience for me, but my transition was smooth because I had played as a defender at the youth level. During my U-15 days at Mumbai FC under coach Naushad Moosa, he always used to say that every player must know how to play in multiple positions.
"My transition was also made easier by my teammates at Hyderabad. I play alongside an experienced Spanish defender. In front of me, I've got one of the best left-footed players in India – Mohammad Yasir. In midfield, there are João (Victor) and Hitesh (Sharma). So, I've become very comfortable at right-back thanks to my coaches and teammates," said Poojary.
At the start of last season, Hyderabad's regular right-back Asish Rai shifted base to ATK Mohun Bagan, allowing Poojary to step up and thrive in the new role.
"I'm thankful to the coaching staff and the management as they trusted me to fill in the right-back spot. Personally, I used to be confused about my best position before this year. But now, I think my ideal position will be right-back because I think I can be solid defensively and help in attack as well. Coach Manolo (Márquez) told me that right-back was a suitable position for me.
"Also, coach Igor (Stimac) met me in the Durand Cup last year and told me the same thing that I should start loving the right-back position more. So, after this season, I've become more clear and comfortable about my position," Poojary revealed.
After missing out on the final squad for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the UAE, Poojary is determined to make the cut for the upcoming edition in Qatar next year. "We all know just how important the game-time from these matches (in the Hero Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship) is for us in preparation for the Asian Cup, which is only eight months away. Everybody is impressed with the facilities provided to us here in Bhubaneswar. The Odisha sports ministry has done a great job. The ground and gym facilities are top-notch, and everybody is making our job easier.
"In our team meetings, the coaches and captain Chhetri bhai have stressed that whatever we're doing right now – our diet and training – everything is building up for the Asian Cup. We've got two back-to-back tournaments, so our game-time and recovery will be very crucial. Everybody is taking these matches very seriously to try and make the squad for the Asian Cup," Poojary said.
For the 27-year-old, the upcoming SAFF Championship in Bengaluru will be his second one, and he does have some unfinished business in the tournament. In the 2018 edition, Poojary netted his first-ever goal for India against Maldives in the group stage, but unfortunately, a defeat against the same opposition in the final meant a runners-up finish for the Blue Tigers in Dhaka.
"We went with an U-23 squad to the SAFF Championship in 2018, and we've still got a lot of the same players in the team. I have the silver medal from that tournament at my home. We did win the SAFF in 2021, but I wasn't a part of the team. So, hopefully, we win it again this time," said the Mangaluru-born player.
There's a long way to go from hereon until the Asian Cup, and with a tight calendar lined up, both internationally and domestically, Poojary believes it is absolutely vital to be consistent and not let your guard down."To keep your spot in the team, you not only have to do well in the camp but also your club when you go back. So, it's important to take care of your health and fitness as everybody knows we're going to have high-intensity games in the Asian Cup. As I said before, everything we do every single day is going to count eight months later," added Poojary.