AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: The festival of Diwali is all about overcoming the darkness within and without, and emerging into the shining light, something that India U-20 Men’s National Team assistant coach Nallappan Mohanraj has done.
Mohanraj, who finished his playing career in 2020, has since then completed his coaching licenses and received his first appointment as the India U-20 team’s assistant coach under the stewardship of Shanmugam Venkatesh (head coach).
“This was my first assignment as a coach in the national team after I stopped playing in 2020. I was really lucky to get this opportunity and thanks to AIFF and Venky bhai that I got this special opportunity to coach a national team and represent the country (debuted in 2011 against Turkmenistan at Kuala Lumpur) even after my playing career,” said Mohanraj.
Coming in just about a month ahead of India’s AFC U-20 Asian Cup qualifying campaign, Mohanraj feels that the work put in to prepare the boys for the Asian level has paid off in a manner. India finished third in Group H of the qualifiers, behind Australia and Iraq, going on to record a victory against hosts Kuwait in their final game.
“If you look at it carefully, we have played with the same starting XI in all the three matches, we’ve barely had any injuries or cramps in a tournament where the matches were held every second day,” said Mohanraj. “And I can assure you that our boys absolutely ran their socks off in all the three matches. We may not have had the results to show for it, but anyone who watched the games could see that we gave some of the best teams in Asia a good run for their money.”
While Mohanraj works his players hard during conditioning ahead of the tournaments, he brings in a certain fighting spirit from his own fighting days. The 33-year-old is often seen pacing around the dressing rooms, trying to motivate the players and telling them about the virtues of giving one’s 100 per cent.
“These are values that I’ve grown up with, and values that have helped me get out of dark places in the past, and I absolutely follow them to the teeth,” said Mohanraj.
Having lost his father at the age of 9, the former India international centre-back started off his journey from Namakkal, Tamil Nadu, in a humble manner. While most footballers carried the dream of playing for the country or becoming professional players, for Mohanraj, it was all about survival.
“Those were tough times. I’ve seen it all, when we had nothing, and I had to work as a construction labour on the weekends, earning Rs 30 per day, to becoming a professional footballer, when I also received big contracts,” he recalled. “I’ve seen all kinds of people along this journey, but what really matters is what’s on the inside. As long as you are a good person and have a good heart, nothing else matters. That’s why, now, as a coach, I try to tell the players to always be true to themselves.”
The centre-back’s mother has played a huge role in his upbringing, something that he is immensely thankful for.
“The values that I live my life by come from my mother. It was not easy for her back in those days. After my father passed away, she singlehandedly brought up my sisters and me, and worked double shifts in the farms to support us. She would wake up early, make us breakfast and send us to school, before going to the farms. In the evening, we would all come back and she would cook us dinner and then would go back to the farm again, because we only had electricity at night in our village, and that was the best time to use the electric pumps,” he said.
Mohanraj started playing football as a means to get free education, but once that process was initiated, the little child soon began to shape up into the hardy centre-back that he later came to be known as.
Being rejected by a number of academies, Mohanraj finally joined HAL as a youngster. However, as he could not get a spot in the Tamil Nadu state team, a good performance for his club earned him an U-19 National Team call-up under the then coach Colm Toal. Soon after, his talents were noticed and he was signed by Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan.
“That was a moment when I was filled with both pride and relief. That finally, I would be able to help my family get out of poverty. I did have offers from clubs in Goa as well, and was advised by many to take those offers as many said that playing in Kolkata has its own set of pressures,” said Mohanraj. “But for me, the decision was clear. My mother was in large debt over numerous things, and I went for the club that was going to pay be better. When you have faced such struggles in life, these are easy decisions to make.
“I remember both my mother and sisters were so happy when I went back after that; they all started crying, while I stood there, awkwardly cracking jokes, trying to act like a hero. It was a good moment,” he continued.
“From then on, it was one step after another. Playing for the country was of course a very proud moment for me, but being able to give my mother the support and security after she had toiled for years was the dream that I had chased. And it was through that chase that my life became all about football. This sport has given me everything, and I now want to give back through coaching,” said Mohanraj. “Many may feel that I am very aggressive with the way I do things, but that’s just how I am – that’s how life has shaped me. If I wanted something, I’ve had to go and take it. Nothing ever came for free. It’s an anger that over the years I’ve learnt to channelise, and I hope to help the next generation of footballers do the same as well.”