If the inaugural Futsal Club Championship in India is to be seen as a success, the biggest success story of the tournament will be Nikhil Mali.
The Delhi FC captain was not only the top scorer of the tournament but was also the MVP. His goal tally of 24 was 7 more than the player who finished runner-up. In fact, Delhi FC played well as a team but Mali made them that much better.
man of this time?
– Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) November 13, 2021
There were two standout moments for Mali during the final held at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in New Delhi on Saturday (13 November).
The first was when he beat two players and beat Mohammedan Sporting’s goalkeeper. He turned, walked away then jumped, made a 360 turn with his body and lowered his arms.
It was hard to miss the tribute to your favorite player, Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I look up to Ronaldo because of his hard work and discipline. He has been doing this throughout his career and he is my inspiration for the same,” Nikhil Mali told SportsLomo after the match was over.
“And despite his age, he is still capable of performing at the highest level,” he added.
This was not the only tribute paid to the Portuguese superstar. Like his idol, Mali wore the number 7 on his jersey. And, even more like his idol, he enjoys scoring tons of goals. No wonder he scored 5 runs in the final itself.
The thought process behind his mind boggling numbers
Amazingly, this was not the first time in the tournament that he put up such numbers. He also scored five goals in all the group matches for Delhi FC.
Amazingly, the only match in which he did not score five goals was against Mangala Club in the semi-finals. There, he could ‘only’ score four goals.
However, Mali was quick to give some credit to his teammates for his brilliant goal. And he attributed his success to simply being hungry for goals rather than setting goals for himself beforehand.
“First of all, I have to give a lot of credit to the team for the goals that I scored. But it is not a matter of setting targets.
“After the first three games where I scored five goals in each, I thought that should continue. In the semi-finals I could only score four but no matter! (laughs)”
At one level he is right in giving credit to the team. Delhi FC remained compact and did not win the league; He regularly seemed to outwit his opposition.
In fact, after the end of the group stages, they had scored 44 goals in total – far and away more than any other side up to that point. And he went on to score 7 in the final before scoring 12 goals to – in fact – knock out Mangala in the semi-finals.
Delhi FC as a unit are absolutely clinical in front of goal. But it is not an exaggeration to say that they will be less of a threat without their leading goalscorer.
more than just a goalscorer
Having said that, Nikhil Mali is much more than just a goal-hunter. The 25-year-old from Pune is someone who can use any advantage to stay ahead of the opposition.
This became evident when Delhi FC won a penalty in the second half. Mali stepped up to take the kick, but no one could predict what he would do next.
The goalkeeper successfully pulled away Panenka’s shot, diving to his right to cut the ball down the middle. The ball bounced straight and went in.
It is reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane’s goal in the 2006 World Cup final. And this one shot was as beautiful as it was amazing. So why did he try it at that very moment?
“Actually, the main reason is that I like to hit sticky shots! I’ve done that in local tournaments before.
“But I know in futsal the goalkeeper will always try to block ground shots. And the first two penalties I scored in the tournament were ground shots, so I thought he would judge accordingly.
“So I decided to try Panenka, and it worked.”
The fact that he pulled off the panenka—a shot that can fool players if mistimed—with so little effort was remarkable in itself. But the thought process behind the shot was even more remarkable.
It’s no surprise, perhaps, that he’s setting his sights even higher in the near future.
What next for Nikhil Mali?
Futsal as a sport is a niche within a niche in the Indian context. The popularity of football in the country is increasing to a great extent, but it still lags far behind sports like cricket.
This means that futsal players will face a huge challenge of being watched by a large public. But that hasn’t stopped Mali from embracing the sport, especially since he temporarily left the world of football behind for the world of academics.
“I took up futsal in the last three years when I left the sport to study at home. That’s where the skill of playing the game came in.
Now back from his break and having showcased his skills in the Futsal Club Championship, his next target is to sign for an I-League or Indian Super League (ISL) side. Of course, the ultimate dream is to turn out for the Indian national football team.
“My dream is of course to represent the Indian football team at the international level. I have played in the I-League qualifiers before, and for now I hope to get an I-League or ISL contract soon.