Igor Stimac handed national debuts to 11 players during the friendlies against Oman and UAE in March this year. Only three of them went on to cement their place in the team, starting all three matches of the joint World Cup and Asian Cup Qualifiers in June.
The youngest of them is Suresh Singh Wangjam. Only 20, the box-to-box midfielder has featured in all of the last five matches for India. In the Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21 season, he played 19 out of 20 matches for Bengaluru FC (BFC).
A hard-tackling midfielder, Suresh's ability to run tirelessly for 90 minutes and help his team break opponent's play has seen the Manipur footballer rise swiftly through the ranks of Indian football. But what makes him extra special or sets him apart from his contemporaries is the heterogeneity in his game. In the Qatar game, he spent most of the time as a right-back after Rahul Bheke saw a red card. He finished the game having frustrated Asian Champions' star player Hassan Al-Haydos.
In the Bangladesh game where India secured the three points that helped them directly qualify for the third round of Asian Cup Qualifiers, Suresh did the triple shift of playing as a defender, midfielder and attacker.
He was slotted into the midfield with Glan Martins but regularly dropped down to play as a right-back to support the three-man defence whenever Bangladesh threatened with an attacking move. When India bombed forward in the final third, he was on the right flank.
It's a difficult job to switch between so many positions during a single game, extraordinarily tiring for sure, but Suresh doesn't mind it. His footballing mantra is "do as the coach says".
"When I joined the national team, my focus was on doing what the coach wants me to do. I use to think about what a coach wants from a midfielder," Suresh says.
"I just want to do what the coach wants and just want to give my everything on the pitch. For example, as the coach asked, in the Qatar game I was marking Hassan Al-Haydos as the right-back. It's difficult to switch positions, but at the same time, it's not difficult as well because of the support that I get from the coaches and senior players."
What really helps Suresh in donning these multiple hats at the same time is his experience of playing on the right flank during his earlier days.
"I am used to playing on the right wing. I am a big fan of Cristiano Ronaldo and like him, I played on the right side. But after I joined the India Under-14 side, I was asked to play in midfield. For me, I have got no complaints if the coach wants me to play in midfield, or as a right-back, or right-winger, because I am happy as long as I am on the field and in the playing XI," the former Indian Arrows midfielder says.
What is even more amazing about Suresh's headline-making brief career is that his footballing journey began only at the age of 11, a bit late from the usual standards. Initially, his father, Wangjam Chandra Singh, who runs a hardware shop in Imphal, was skeptical about his son taking up sports professionally.
But Suresh forced a change in perception with his outstanding performances in the local tournaments, leading to him joining Wangoi Football Association (WFA). From thereon, there was no stopping him.
"When I started playing football, the game was not as big as now. Those who played looked for government jobs like in the police. But compared to that, now I see in my hometown young kids coming for training accompanied by their parents. This didn't happen in my early days. A lot has changed in India also. It's very important to start early. It's just like how you progress in school, you have to learn about the game from a young age to develop," he recalls.
After WFA, Suresh joined Birchandra Memorial Sports Club and would then go on to represent Manipur at the U-14 level, from where he was scouted for the India U-14 team in 2014. What followed was a successful trial for the U-17 World Cup where he along with his teammates became the first batch of Indian players to play in a global tournament.
Starting football education late had its own challenges but Suresh is not the one to be easily bogged down. He made up for the lost time with hard work and dedication as he travelled across the globe preparing for the FIFA tournament.
"I started playing only at the age of 11 but the good thing in my case was that I was lucky to play in the U-17 World Cup. We got a lot of exposure and I improved a lot during the two-three years by playing friendly games against quality opponents. I would like to thank SAI and AIFF for all the opportunities," says Suresh.
After the World Cup, Suresh played in the I-League for Indian Arrows for two years before joining Bengaluru. A club where he has developed into El Torito (the little bull), a nickname given to him by the fans.
Along with developing as a footballer, Suresh has also improved his fitness drastically in the last few years which helps him to play his tireless brand of football. His camaraderie with Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is well known with the senior players often pulling his leg on social media, but they have also been a massive influence on his lifestyle choices.
"During the U-17 days, my knowledge about diet was not this good. I also didn't do gym training as I do now. In terms of diet, I really want to thank the senior players from Bengaluru, especially Gurpreet bhai and Chhetri bhai, who taught me how to eat. The good thing is that I sit with them at the dining table and they check my food. Also, in front of them, I don't have the guts to eat junk food," he shares.
It's not just restricted to diet, Suresh has also managed to make the great Chhetri his gym partner. It's difficult to say no when somebody is as dedicated as Suresh.
"Chhetri bhai always accepts my invitation to do gym together. All this has helped me to improve my fitness. Even after football sessions, I train on running with Chhetri bhai and that extra work has helped me."
"I spend most of my time in the gym with Chhetri bhai. If we have a training session in the morning then I go to the gym in the evening. If we have very intense training I still go to the gym even if it's just for stretching or recovery."
Suresh knows there's still a long way to go for him. He talks about improving consistently. And with him being in great company, willing to give his everything on the pitch and do whatever the coach asks for, Indian football could look forward to many years of great service from him.