Mandar Rao Desai, one of the eight new faces introduced by Igor Stimac to the international stage, decided to switch to left-back only after FC Goa's coach Sergio Lobera advised him to do so. Desai debuted in Indian colours in July at the Intercontinental Cup against Tajikistan.
Sergio Lobera took over the reign at FC Goa in 2017 and it was the Spaniard who convinced Mandar Rao Dessai to switch as a defender although Desai himself was a bit apprehensive about it at first. After his initial struggles as a left-back, the 27-year-old winger slowly found his footing in defence.
“I got a call-up for a national team after playing as a left-back, so it was great. Last season, Lobera called me and asked me whether if I would be comfortable playing there (left-back), I said that I could try. He told me that even if I was not feeling comfortable, he said that he believed in me," said the footballer as reported by Scroll.in
Desai claimed that he had a small idea about how to defend as he was a winger but he used to watch videos of modern left-back greats such as Jordi Alba and Marcelo to develop his game. Playing under Lobera has also helped him adjust to Stimac’s system because of their similar approach in philosophies of creating attacks gradually from the back.
Among the eight new faces that have made their debut under Stimac so far, Desai is the most experienced. But he is enjoying his best time under the Croatian as he revealed that the coach “is very approachable” and helps the players out on and off the field. He also stated that Stimac is motivating the players “not only in the games but also in practice sessions”, which helps their overall development.
Coming up through the ranks of the youth academy, Madar Rao Desai got his first taste of professional football in 2013 after he joined one of Indian football’s most famed clubs back then in the I-League, Dempo SC, as a teenager. Perhaps, the youngster not only had to make a name for himself but he also had big boots to fill.
“When I joined them by the time I was 19 years old, I guess and then at that time coach Armando Colaco told me, you will be the replacement of Clifford Miranda. I was really happy at that moment because Miranda was a big player back then who was at his peak,” Desai reminisced.
That was the time Desai ultimately realised his dream of playing for the country knowing that the road to the top was not easy for him. In his debut season with the Golden Eagles, first-team opportunities were hard to come by for the Goa-born left-winger but it was a matter of time before he found his feet.
“Back then when I played for Dempo, there were some big players – Mahesh Gawli, Clifford Miranda, Anthony Pereira, Climax Lawrence and many others. So there was no chance to break into that team. They always kept me motivated and advised me to keep practising hard,” he added.
Blessed with lightning pace, deceiving defenders with his trickery at the drop of a hat and with an eye for goal, Desai was a winger material through and through. But he never got the chance to make his International debut despite receiving multiple call-ups back when the Indian team was coached by Stephen Constantine.
The wait for a first international cap ended in July at the Intercontinental Cup when he played under new head coach Igor Stimac as a left-back, a position he only began playing two years ago.
“It was long overdue, I guess,” said Desai on the emotion he felt on wearing India colours.
Last season in the ISL, Desai was the skipper of FC Goa and took the league by storm. The Gaurs were the highest scorers and were among the three teams to register the most number of clean sheets (8).
Consistent as he was to his newly-adopted left-back role the entire season, it was agony for Desai in the final after he pulled up his hamstring midway during the match. His replacement Saviour Gama, who was in their development team, also impressed. However, Goa FC lost the final in extra time which left Mandar and his team disappointed.