Battle-hardened Nikhil Poojary fights ‘inner demons’ for Asian Cup opportunity

DOHA, QATAR: It’s a tough job to find a spot in the Indian Football Team. Perhaps nobody has had it tougher in recent times than Nikhil Poojary, whose career has been mired by injuries and omissions, just when things looked like they were beginning to get better.

While an ACL injury in 2017 right after his first call-up to the National Team slowed his progress, eventually leading to him not being on the flight to UAE for the AFC Asian Cup 2019, a call-up to the national squad later that year would end unsatisfactorily in Qatar, where he would be substituted off in India’s famous stalemate against the hosts in the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifier.

Poojary would not resurface in the international arena for another four years, when he was finally called back for the Intercontinental Cup, followed by the SAFF Championship. The winger-turned-fullback, however, has grabbed the opportunity and produced performances that have merited his spot in the 2023 edition of the AFC Asian Cup.

“People just see the international level, but there are so many battles one has to fight, just to be there. You need to go through so many steps to make your comeback,” said Poojary to AIFF. “You battle injuries, you battle form, you have your battles at your club at the domestic level, and if these were not enough, you have to battle your internal demons as well.

“I am very thankful to the coaches for showing their trust and support in me,” he said.

The 28-year-old has since then been a part of the National Team in the SAFF Championship, King’s Cup, Merdeka Tournament, and the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.

“Las year was very important for me, and for us as a team. We have played so many matches together, won and lost together, we have grown as a team and as a unit,” he said. “Personally, I have really enjoyed this time, and I just want to keep playing at this level for as long as I can.”

The Blue Tigers received a rapturous welcome at the Hamad International Airport in Doha, where hundreds of fans turned up to chant the names of their favourite heroes. For Poojary, the experience at the Doha airport was only second to India’s match against Kuwait.

“The reception we got was absolutely amazing in Doha. I never expected it. Probably the only thing I would rate higher than that was the World Cup Qualifier in Kuwait (November 2023),” said Poojary. “We had had a couple of difficult games against them, and expected to play in front of hostile galleries. But as it turned out, the stadium was filled with Indian fans. I still get goosebumps when I think about it.

“I hope we get similar experiences in Doha,” beamed Poojary.

India have been drawn in Group B of the AFC Asian Cup, where they will face the likes of Australia (January 13), Uzbekistan (January 18), and Syria (January 23). While the group looks relatively tough, Poojary and the boys are not deterred. 

“It’s going to be special, especially for those like me, who will make their Asian Cup debuts here. It’s like a mini World Cup for us,” he said. “All the top teams and players from Asia will be here, so it will be a good opportunity for us to test our levels.”

Also Read: Subhasish Bose looks for silver lining in Qatar

Also Read: AIFF President evaluates the possibility of implementing ‘Additional Video Review System’ (AVRS) in India

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