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You can count on him

Stan Ryan

KOCHI: Guarding strikers. Dismantling attacks. Aiding the goalkeeper. Defenders seem to be doing much of the donkey's work. But rarely are they in the limelight.

Mahesh Gawli is one such man. And is quite good at the back. The Goan, playing for Mumbai's Mahindra United, was adjudged the country's best defender in the last National Football League, which ended a few months ago.

And mind you, the NFL is a tough assignment for defenders. For all the country's top clubs have foreign strikers. He was also in fine touch in the Air India Express Santosh Trophy in Kochi the other day, helping Goa to the title after fifteen years.

India's best defender

Gawli has come out sparkling under trying conditions. "He is a full-time fighter. After my generation, and after Jo Paul Ancheri, he's the best defender India produced," said former India captain V.P. Sathyan, one of India's best-ever backs.

"His attitude, sincerity, professionalism and killer instinct have always impressed me. And a few times, he has raced upfront and scored a few surprise goals. In many ways, he reminds me of myself," said Sathyan.

"I've seen him at close quarters two years ago when I was the assistant national coach to Stephen Constantine, at the Asia Cup in Korea," said the Chennai-based Indian Bank coach.

Cool customer

Gawli is a cool customer, which stands him in good stead in his high-pressure job. He was in the Mahindra United team, which won the recent Federation Cup in Goa. And he has been a reliable member of a few sides, which despite the country's poor FIFA ranking, occasionally remind us that all is not lost with Indian football.

Two years ago, he was in the East Bengal team, which apart from winning the National League, also won the ASEAN Cup in Jakarta. It was the first time an Indian club was winning an Asian-level tournament. And in 2002, he helped India win the LG Cup in Vietnam.

"But our 3-1 victory over Turkmenistan (in the league phase) at the 2002 Busan Asian Games is my most memorable match," said the Goan.

Gawli, who hails from Cuncolim, took to football at ten at the Assumpta School. He soon found his way into the SAI, Goa, and was later moulded into a fine gem during his four-year stay at the Tata Football Academy.

He played for FC Kochin, the country's first professional club, in the early years of the NFL before moving to Churchill Brothers, East Bengal and now with Mahindra United, which starts as the favourite at the next National League, which begins early next year.

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