Nikhil Mali - The undisputed star of the Futsal Club Championship

If the inaugural Futsal Club Championship in India was seen as a success, the tournament's biggest success story would have to be Nikhil Mali.

Nikhil Mali, the Futsal Club Championship's MVP and top goal-scorer. (Image: Twitter/@IndianFootball)

If the inaugural Futsal Club Championship in India was seen as a success, then the tournament’s biggest success story would have to be Nikhil Mali.

The Delhi FC skipper was not only the tournament’s top scorer, but also the MVP. His goal-tally of 24 was 7 more than the player who finished runner-up. Indeed, Delhi FC played well as a team but Mali made them look so much better.

During the final held at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in New Delhi on Saturday (November 13), there were two moments which stood out for Mali.

The first was when he beat two players and shot low past the Mohammedan Sporting goalkeeper. He turned around, wheeled away then jumped, did a 360 turn with his body and smashed his arms downwards.

The tribute to his favourite player, Cristiano Ronaldo, was hard to miss.

“I look up to Ronaldo due to his hard work and discipline. He’s been doing it through his whole career and for that he is my inspiration,” Nikhil Mali told SportsLumo after the match was over.

“And despite his age, he is still able to perform at the highest level,” he added.

This wasn’t the only tribute he paid to the Portuguese superstar. Like his idol, Mali sported the number 7 on his jersey. And, even moreso like his idol, he enjoys scoring plenty of goals. No wonder then that he scored 5 in the final itself.

The thought process behind his mind-boggling numbers

Amazingly, this wasn’t the first time in the tournament that he put up such numbers. He scored five goals each in all of Delhi FC’s group matches too.

Amazingly, the only match he didn’t score five goals was in the semi-final against Mangala Club. There, he could ‘only’ score four goals.

Mali, however, was quick to give back some credit to his teammates for his amazing goal tally. And he also attributed his success to merely being hungry for goals, rather than setting targets for himself beforehand.

“First off, I have to give a lot of credit to the team for the goals I scored. But it isn’t a case of setting targets.

“After the first three games where I scored five goals each I thought that let’s keep this streak going. In the semi-final I could only score four but it’s okay! (laughs)”

At some level, he is right when giving credit to the team. Delhi FC did not win the league by looking to stay compact; they looked to outscore their opposition on the regular.

In fact, after the end of the group stages, they had scored 44 goals in total – far and away more than any other side till that point. And they put 12 goals – really – past Mangala in the semi-final, before scoring 7 in the final.

Delhi FC as a unit are absolutely clinical in front of goal. But it isn’t a stretch to say that they would be less of a threat without their lead goalscorer.

More than just a goalscorer

That being said, Nikhil Mali is more than just a goal-poacher. The 25-year-old from Pune is someone who uses any advantage he can to stay ahead of the opposition.

This was evident when Delhi FC won a penalty in the second half. Mali stepped up to take the kick, but no one could have anticipated what he would do next.

He successfully pulled off a Panenka shot, chipping the ball down the middle as the goalkeeper dived to his right. The ball clipped the upright and went in.

It was reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane’s goal in the 2006 World Cup final. And it was a shot as beautiful as it was gutsy. So why did he attempt it at that very moment?

“Actually, the main reason for that is because I like to hit chipped shots! I’ve done it before as well in local tournaments.

“But I know that in futsal, the goalkeeper will always look to block the ground shots. And the first two penalties I scored in the tournament were ground shots, so I thought he’d judge it accordingly too.

“Hence I decided to try the Panenka, and it worked.”

The fact that he pulled off the Panenka – a shot that can make players look foolish if it goes wrong – with such little effort was in itself notable. But the thought process behind the shot was even more notable.

It is little wonder, perhaps, that he is 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 growing to an extent, but it still lags way behind sports like cricket.

That means futsal players would face an even bigger challenge getting noticed by the larger public. But that did not deter Mali from taking up the sport, especially since he had temporarily left the world of football behind for the world of academics.

“I took up futsal over the past three years when I left the sport to study at home. That’s where the skill to play the game came from.”

Now back from his break and having showcased his skills in the Futsal Club Championship, his next goal is to get signed by an I-League or Indian Super League (ISL) side. The ultimate dream, of course, is to turn out for the Indian national football team.

“My dream, of course, is to represent the Indian football team at the international stage. I have previously played in the I-League qualifiers, and for now I hope to get an I-League or ISL contract soon,” he signed off.

Shayne Dias

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