Sant Baba Bhag Singh University goalkeeper Naveen Saini is one of the up-and-coming goalkeeper to watch out for in the upcoming Khelo India University Games 2021. When asked who his idol was, the 18-year-old quickly asserted, "My father of course."
Saini's father Pawan Kumar was a goalkeeper for Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Football Club (JCT)'s state league team and played for CRPF in the 1990s.
"My father never played at the national level, but he played with and around big players like Vijayan, Jo-Paul Ancheri... it counts for a lot," Naveen said.
A second year B.Phy Ed and sports student, Naveen Saini got ingrained in the lonesome art of goalkeeping from a very young age. His father was his first coach, and right from the start his height helped the cause.
Although a junior goalkeeper in the ranks, Naveen Saini is known for his penalty stopping skills. "My father was the same," he smiles, with a twinkle in his eye. "He won CRPF several tournaments via shootouts. If the game is stuck in a stalemate, headed towards a shootout, the coach always puts me on. I'm always expected to save two or three."
Saini was scouted and picked for the India Under-15 team six years ago, and graduated to the Under-17 national team and remained on course to feature for the Indian Arrows in the I-League.
However, the 6'5" shot-stopper was hit with the COVID-19 virus ahead of the I-League 2020-21 season and thus, missed out on a chance to show his skills at the senior level. Soon after recovering, he had already outgrown AIFF's development team.
Where others may have been disheartened because of losing time, Saini took heart. His inspiration this time came from a senior in the junior national team set up, and a former fellow Chandigarh football academy graduate in Kerala Blasters' Prabhsukhan Gill.
"Sukhan pajji (Prabhsukhan Gill) was sitting on the bench for so many seasons of the ISL (Indian Super League)," Naveen said. "Goalkeepers' lives are such. You'll get one chance and sometimes it takes a long while. When he got it, he took it with both hands," he added.
Naveen Saini was part of the Sant Baba Bhag Singh University (SBBS) team that finished runners-up to University of Calicut in the All India Inter-University Football Championship in Calicut, held in January 2022.
"This is my first experience of the Khelo India Games," he said. "Many members of my team have been part of the University Games before, and we've come with a strong team. We want to win this," Saini added.
The Khelo India University Games football competition will begin on Sunday, April 24, starting with the women's category. Annamalai University take on Bharathidasan University in the opener.
Saini's team Sant Baba Bhag Singh University, meanwhile, will face Mahatma Gandhi University in their Group B opener on Monday.
Featured photo: AIFF media