Sweeper keeper, future leader: The Phurba Lachenpa story

Phurba Lachenpa says the key to playing as a sweeper keeper is two things: “reading the game” and “starting position”. R. Parthibhan/Focus Sports/ ISL

It's the second leg of the first semifinal of the ISL. The stakes are as about as high as they get in Indian football. The Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru is bouncing; loud and boisterous, this is some atmosphere.

Bengaluru FC are leading (1-0) from the first leg and are out to get another. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu piledrives one in behind the Mumbai City FC high line and Roy Krishna sets off. Faster than the Mumbai centre-backs, Krishna thinks he's got this.

This is when a massive 6'1" frame, clad in a lovely shade of mango-orange, comes racing out, traps the ball perfectly, takes a touch around him, looks up and calmly picks out Ahmed Jahouh in midfield.

In the context of the match, this was a nothing move, one of the many that don't make the cut even in an extended highlights package. But in the larger context, this was significant: The large figure in mango-orange is named Phurba Lachenpa, and he's a goalkeeper from Indian football's future.


Under Des Buckingham (even more than under previous management), Mumbai City play a very high line. They don't do this because their centre-backs are lightning quick, but because of who their goalkeeper is.

The key, Lachenpa says, is two things: "reading the game" and "starting position". That's all that sweeping is, according to him. His average starting position is higher than anyone else in the land and he comes out without fear. The last bit is important -- when he has the ball at his feet there is no panic, just an ability to calmly pick out the right pass.

Worldwide now, the idea of goalkeeping has evolved. Gone are the days when pure shot-stopping ability was the most sought-after attribute: now, it's a lot more about how you can prevent a shot from happening in the first place. And that means sweeping up high, coming for crosses outside the six-yard box and passing out from the back (the latter also crucial for chance creation).

The revolution is slowly coming to India too and the man from Lachen (Sikkim) is at the forefront of the change. This is not to say he isn't a great shot-stopper (just sample the three incredible saves he made off Javi Hernandez in that aforementioned semifinal game), but that there are few in the land who has his combination of attributes.

Lachenpa credits his style of goalkeeping to the start of his career, when with Shillong Lajong, he used to play it short and sweep up high regularly. "We were a team that used to keep the ball," he says. "We were a very small team... [this meant] we had to keep the ball and move it around so that the opponent doesn't get a chance."

It's only been built upon during this stint at Mumbai. "The trust [Buckingham] has in me gives me more confidence to play out from the back. Even [when] I make mistakes in training, he keeps on pushing me," he says. "I don't think about the mistakes ... that will always be there in my career. I just try to be brave and take risks."

Risk is an oft-repeated word in our conversation. It comes from the nature of his job. "Playing goalkeeper, there's always a risk. Behind us, there's only a goalpost and our split-second decisions can determine the result of the match," he says, before adding, "But in life, you have to take risks. The same [applies] to the football world also."

"If you don't take risks and shy away from the responsibility you have, then you won't improve as a player. Sometimes you must fail to analyse what is right and what isn't."

The risk isn't just an 'oh-how-will-this-affect-my-team' intangible. It's very physical too. In 2016, playing the Independence Cup for Lajong against Aizawl FC, he suffered a serious injury. "In a one-on-one situation, I hit my head on the striker's knee. I broke a bit of the bone on my forehead (points to an area near his left eye socket). I had to do a major surgery, put a screw in."

He smiles when asked how he's able to put himself in that kind of position over and over. "It's because of the passion I have for my work," he says. "Every day when I go to training, it gives me immense joy to be in the field, to share the dressing room with such great players and colleagues and then go and play in front of our fans."

"[You have to] keep on going, whatever happens, whether injury comes or not... it's part of life. We have to just go forward. In life, you're never certain... even if you're staying at home, doing nothing, a heart attack might come? It doesn't stop you from working!"

And so he goes out game after game, session after session, sweeping high, challenging for the ball in crowded boxes, calming everyone down.

"When I started out, I loved the responsibility we get on a football field, the pressure we have... We have 11 players on the [team] but the goalkeeper is the only one who has a different kind of pressure," he says. "You are lonely, you're at the back and you have lots of time to think. If you don't think right, you don't think positively, you'll be in big trouble. I love this pressure."

Now, he's still a way off being #1 for India -- partly because of the way the national team plays, and partly because of the man who's #1 right now (Gurpreet showed just why he is top dog in that same semifinal) -- but Phurba doesn't have a problem waiting for his chance.

It's something he did at Shillong (two years before he became first-choice) and at Mumbai (two years here also).

"I think patience is the key," he says with a shrug and a smile. "From the start of my career, I've been working hard on the field. No matter what the result, whether I play or not. I've been just focusing on the process, not on the result. "In the long run, you should be very patient and keep working and do [that] work right. If you do [this] right, the result will come to you."

These days, the results are coming, alright. The revolution is being televised, and Phurba Lachenpa is the one leading it.