Last season, Naorem Roshan Singh played just two matches during Bengaluru FC’s Indian Super League (ISL) campaign. On another five occasions, the full-back made it to the bench; for the remaining games, he wasn’t even in the squad. When he featured in the AFC Cup and the Durand Cup in 2021, things looked up for Singh. But as another ISL season unfolded a few months later, he found himself an unused substitute during Bengaluru’s opener against NorthEast United on 20 November.
Singh was unperturbed and continued to train. His opportunity arrived during Bengaluru’s second match against Odisha FC, which was also his first league start for the senior team. Bengaluru lost that tie 1-3, but Singh presented his case with aplomb.
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He was lively during the entire game, playing the full 90 minutes. He even assisted Bengaluru’s lone goal, after centre back Alan Costa scored off Singh’s corner. It was a moment that Singh had long been waiting for. He was now eager for more.
After a sluggish start, Bengaluru crawled their way up the table, though they eventually failed to make the playoffs. But Singh stood out in his first full season. It was enough reason for Indian national team coach, Igor Stimac, to hand the 23-year-old his first call-up to the India camp for two friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus later this month.
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“Last year was a learning experience. There’s a lot to observe, whether in training or while sitting on the bench. It helped me mature and understand the game better. I was patient and finally got my chance this season,” Singh says.
Since that first start, Singh featured in every single game that he was available (after being left out in the first, he missed two more due to suspension). He has provided seven assists in all during the season—the most for Bengaluru and behind only Jamshedpur FC’s Greg Stewart. No Indian features among the top-10 for assists besides Singh.
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“Of course, I was really nervous during my first start for the team. But it helps when your teammates and staff put their confidence in you. At every training session, I went with the attitude that I want to get better and put in the extra work each day. That’s what has helped me the most,” he says.
Football has meant everything for Singh, ever since he first kicked a ball back home in Samurou Makha Leikai in Manipur. His football-crazy father, a school teacher, was his most vociferous fan on the touchline. Singh and his two brothers would be out and about, spending long hours in the fields with a ball at their feet. Back home, their parents made quiet sacrifices to ensure that the boys could pursue what they enjoyed most.“My father never forced me into anything. He encouraged us to chase our dreams and I got serious about football at a very young age,” he recalls.
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So, while his twin brother, Banikumar, tstudied to become a doctor, Singh pulled up his socks to put in the additional hours at training. After turning out for local clubs, he was picked up for All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) Elite Academy in 2016. He played for Indian Arrows, AIFF’s developmental side, until Bengaluru came calling two years later. “I’ve been a big fan of Bengaluru FC right since my younger days, so there was little hesitation when the offer came. I felt like it was the right path to grow and evolve as a player,” he says.
For Bengaluru, Singh featured in the Under-18 Youth League, played the second division of I-League with the reserves, and turned out in the I-League as part of the senior squad. His versatility made him an instant fit on any team, a two-footed player and a specialist at set pieces.
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His short stature and baby face continue to belie the fire in him. This season, he has stood up to the challenge posed by bigger, more experienced opposition, making the second-highest number of tackles for Bengaluru. He was also at ease on the ball while operating on either flank, making promising runs up the field and floating in delightful crosses, before returning to defensive duties. “I’m open to playing in any position. I’ve played as a winger and a fullback, both on the left and right sides of the field. In fact, I’ve even operated as a midfielder. Whenever my team needs me, I’m ready to play and adapt,” Singh says.
On 30 January, he curled in a stinging free kick to score his first ISL goal. It not only earned his side a 1-0 win over Kerala Blasters FC, but also ensured that they remained unbeaten all month. A few days later, he won the Emerging Player of the Month award for his promising displays.“I’ve been working on set pieces and deliveries since my junior years. When we earned that free kick, I had faith in my ability to convert it. That’s been my favourite game because Kerala has been fantastic all season,” he says.
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His efforts through the season were rewarded when Stimac announced the India squad earlier this month. It features ten new faces including Singh, all eager to make an impression. What has impressed Stimac is Singh’s consistency since his first appearance and his pinpoint accuracy while delivering crosses in the box.
“He has been playing without fear, whether on the left or right, and while using both legs, creating many opportunities in each game. That is something that we need for the Asian Cup qualifiers in June—wide players who are capable of covering ground. Ashique (Kuruniyan) was one of our strengths in the past, but he’s currently injured. Roshan will give us more options in our game,” Stimac says.
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In the past, Singh has donned the India jersey during his days as a junior while playing the AFC Under-19 Championship qualifiers. But stepping out as part of the senior national team will be the fulfillment of one dream and perhaps, the start of another.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.