The last year-and-a-half or so has been good for young Gurkirat Singh – during which he was part of the India U-16 side that reached the quarterfinals and kept three clean sheets in their four games at the AFC U-16 Championships 2018, made his Hero I-League debut with the Indian Arrows and was the joint top-scorer at the SAFF U-18 Championships in Nepal, where India lifted the trophy.
Now a part of the side that is gearing up for the upcoming AFC U-19 Championships 2020 Qualifiers, the 16-year-old recollected the time when he came close to almost quitting the sport. “As a young cadet in my academy in Chandigarh – living far from home, there were times when I wanted to leave and once, I even ran off. However, I came back only due to the continuous backing of my parents, who always believed in me and I shall remain indebted to them for their never-ending support,” he said.
Hailing from a village named Noorpur in the Ludhiana district of Punjab, Gurkirat was drawn into the beautiful game seeing his brothers play. He started playing it on a regular basis and at the age of 12, he was selected by the Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA).
The next step up came soon enough when he became a part of the AIFF Academy setup and excelled under coach Bibiano Fernandes, who converted him from a forward to a full-back. Gurkirat spoke about how he developed under Bibiano’s guidance, saying that he learned things both “on and off the pitch”.
“Bibiano Fernandes sir taught us very well – both on and off the pitch. Under his guidance, I improved technically and tactically. Additionally, I learnt a lot about the mental side of the game and how to take care of things off the pitch, like my diet.”
At the AFC U-16 Championship last year in Malaysia, Gurkirat excelled on the left side of the Indian defence – helping his team reach the quarters after three back-to-back shutouts against Vietnam, Iran and Indonesia in the group stage.
The youngster’s stock grew as he was included in the Indian Arrows team – AIFF’s developmental side – for the 2018-19 Hero I-League season, starting in the team’s opening clash and making two more appearances off the bench. Talking about the last domestic season, he quipped that being a part of the Arrows set-up was a “huge learning experience”.
He stated: “Even though I didn’t get to play much for the Indian Arrows, being a part of the team and the Hero I-League was a huge learning experience. It was a really big thing for me as you don’t see many 15-year-olds be a part of a Hero I-League team and play against highly-experienced players – both Indian and foreign. As a result, I now know what I have to do to succeed at that level and what is required of me.”
Under India U-19 coach Floyd Pinto, he has found success returning to his previous position as a striker – netting for the team against New Caledonia in the OFC Youth Development Tournament 2019 and scoring twice at the SAFF U18 Championship 2019 in Kathmandu – making him the team’s top-scorer at the tournament, which India won for the first time after defeating Bangladesh in the summit clash.
He recalled, “The U-18 SAFF final was really intense. The whole team was focused from the start and fired up to go on and lift the trophy. We had drawn against Bangladesh in the group stages and were determined to make things right in the final. In the end, it was a memorable victory and I’m glad I could do my bit for the team.”
Next on the agenda for young Gurkirat and his team will be the upcoming AFC U-19 Championships qualifiers, where India will go up against Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan for a spot in next year’s final round. The first match will be played at the Prince Saud bin Jalawi Stadium in Al Khobar against Uzbekistan on Wedesday (November 6, 2019).
According to Gurkirat, the team is in prime shape for the qualifiers and will look to make the most of this chance to “make history”.
“We are all fully focused for the AFC U-19 Qualifiers. We have prepared very well in the last few months and finished first in our last two tournaments in Vanuatu and Nepal. We will give our best for the country and hope to get positive results. We have a chance to make history and we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts,” he said, signing off.