Enjoyed every moment with India team: Nandhakumar
In a conversation with DT Next, the 27-year-old talks about his international debut, winning two titles with the national side and more
CHENNAI: Winger Nandhakumar Sekar came within touching distance of making the India squad ahead of the King’s Cup in 2019. He was invited for the pre-tournament national team camp in New Delhi, but was among six players to be released before the trip to Thailand. Cut to 2023, he could not be ignored by India head coach Igor Stimac. Nandhakumar not just knocked on the door in the recent 2022-23 domestic season; he banged it down with noteworthy performances for his former employer Odisha FC (he made the switch to fellow Indian Super League club East Bengal FC in the summer transfer window). Nandhakumar, a constant menace in the flanks and for opposition defenders, struck 11 goals, four of which came in Odisha’s Super Cup-winning campaign. The 27-year-old, who also contributed three assists for the ‘Juggernauts’, deservedly earned a callup to the national team ahead of the Intercontinental Cup in Bhubaneswar, his former ‘home’.
‘Coach, teammates made it easy for me’
In India’s second round-robin match against Vanuatu on June 12, the moment, which the Tamil Nadu player had been long waiting for, finally arrived. Nandhakumar had his ‘Sweet 16’ moment – he sported No.16 on the back of his India jersey – as Stimac named him in the starting eleven that was led by the talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri. “First of all, I felt extremely happy to be a part of the India senior team. I got to make my international debut in the Intercontinental Cup. I did not expect it, so I felt very happy,” Nandhakumar told DT Next when asked about his maiden appearance. “The day before the match, I was told that I would make my debut. I was nervous when I was informed about it. Stimac spoke to me personally and steadied my nerves. ‘Enjoy the moment. I want you to play this way in our structure. I want you to play in this style. Just go out there and express yourself,’ Stimac told me. “The coach gave me the freedom and it was really helpful. On the pitch, my teammates helped me, so it was easy to combine with them. I was able to show my game,” said Nandhakumar,whose India debut lasted a little more than an hour.
India jersey, prized possession
Relishing “one of the best moments” of his career, Nandhakumar picked up his prized possession, the India jersey, and added value to it after the end of the match. “We wore the orange jersey (alternate kit) that night. I got autographs of my teammates and coaches on that jersey. I am yet to frame it. I have not had much time; I have been giving a lot of interviews in the last few days (laughs). I will frame it soon.”
Learning at training and from sidelines
Nandhakumar was largely confined to the bench for the remainder of the Intercontinental Cup, making only a brief substitute appearance in the 2-0 victory over Lebanon in the final.
In the SAFF Championship in Bengaluru that followed, the wideman stayed on the sidelines for the entire tournament. Nandhakumar made no complaints about lack of game time, emphasising that he was delighted to “learn” from experienced campaigners and be a member of the twin title- winning India squad (the team emerged victorious in both). “I enjoyed every moment when I was with the national team. There are a lot of differences between club and international football. In the India team, there are players who have a lot of experience. I have played against senior players [at the club level]. When I combined with Sunil bhai and Sandesh Jhingan… I learnt a lot from them – the character I should have while playing for India, how to adapt to the changes in a match,” said Nandhakumar. “I won the Super Cup with Odisha. I then won the Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship with India. What more can I ask for? There is no better feeling than winning the tournament in which you made your debut in.”
Praise for team and fans
Nandhakumar also had words of praise for his teammates and fans, who forged a memorable partnership at Bengaluru’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium. “All of us had assembled [at the national team camp] after playing in the Indian Super League and Super Cup, so we were in good shape. Everyone gave their 100 per cent and the attitude of the players on the pitch was different (good). After beating Pakistan 4-0 (in the SAFF Championship opener), we gained a lot of confidence. We carried that momentum throughout the tournament; that helped us win the title,” Nandhakumar said. “The fans [at the Kanteerava Stadium] were always behind us. They were one of the main reasons why we managed to win the SAFF title. For the final [against Kuwait], we had about 26,000 fans who came to support us. The stadium was packed. When we sang Vande Mataram with the fans, we had goosebumps,” added Nandhakumar, who has his eyes fixed on an India squad spot for the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar early next year.
‘Excited to represent East Bengal in derbies’
Nandhakumar will next be on East Bengal duty as the Kolkata heavyweight recently acquired him on a three-year contract. At East Bengal, he will link up with Tamil Nadu’s Edwin Sydney Vanspaul, with whom he shares a strong bond. “I am very happy to have signed for East Bengal. We know how football- crazy Kolkata is. We know how the derbies (East Bengal versus Mohun Bagan) are. I am excited to be a part of them. I have known Edwin for a long time now. When I am with him, I feel comfortable. We speak the same language (Tamil), so it will be helpful to adapt to my new club,” said Nandhakumar. When asked which areas he would like to improve upon in the upcoming 2023-24 season, Nandhakumar replied: “Crossing and shooting… shooting with my left foot.” If Nandhakumar enhances his game, he will become an even bigger force in the final third.