The youngster’s powerful header against Colombia was a moment of fulfilment for a nation.
It all started with a visit to a Bank of Baroda branch in my neighbourhood when a poster of the FIFA U-17 World Cup caught my eye. I vividly remember the day as I had a happening night in my plans. The day Manchester United played the Europa League final was the day I learned India was going to create history in October.
I did not ponder about it that much, after all, I am a European football fanatic and the state of Indian football has only magnified my love for the western game. Being a European football fan in the sub-continent is a difficult affair, to strive for our interest we are ought to sacrifice our sleep and survive with dark circles, the following day. Even though the Indian Super League did make a difference to deviate my interests a bit, but it was of no use. After rigorously following the first two seasons, the third season failed to draw my attention over its European counterparts.
After the onset of the transfer window, I completely forgot about the World Cup, let alone making an effort to know about it. Then, came a wave of sensational transfers that changed everything. From a viewer’s perspective to the business model, PSG’s oil money brought an upheaval, followed by the exciting openers of the respective leagues.
Amidst the transition, I happened to go on a family outing near India Gate and yet again passed by an event related to the junior World Cup. Out of curiosity and a buried interest, I went along into the commotion and came by the trophy, then and there, I knew that there is going to be a football revolution in the country and I wanted to witness it, first hand.
Trophy revealing event was held on 20th August near India Gate, New Delhi.
Subsequently, I forgot to further prioritize the event just like the previous time. For almost a month, since then, I was occupied by Europe’s elite. With the Manchester clubs running amok to Neymar’s highlights in Paris, From Barcelona initiating a winning streak to Juventus and Bayern Munich staying on top with much ease.
It hit me again when the TV advertisements rolled out and that time I knew, I was already late. Well, in my defence, with so much happening in Europe, only a patriot of national football would care to focus on the World Cup, which I was not, by miles. Almost immediately after the advertisement, I checked the schedule and the ticket sales. It was a delight to find out that the Indian Colts would be playing in the national capital, my city and when I went along for the booking, almost every stand had a red background, indicating the grim situation of the available tickets, except the north stand, the stand with the worst view of the ground. Until I could convince my friends for it, I had a remark “SOLD” on each and every stand now.
I was not sad, rather relieved at not having wasted my money to watch India lose. I had seen the group and knew the only chance India might have of getting a result would be against Colombia. Neither the USA nor Ghana but just Colombia. I did not take further chances and pre-booked tickets of the Colombia game.
I was right, India lost 0-3 to the USA. A performance not worthy of this dominating score but the inexperience of the mega event made all the difference; after all, it was our debut at any football World Cup. Although, the defeat did not discourage me, the way the boys played pumped up my hopes of a good performance against Colombia.
I had never watched a football game live, though I have been to other sporting events to support India it was all new to me. The things I had only watched happening in Europe were now there in front of me. Fans were singing patriotic songs in public transport to waving our flag outside the stadium in a disciplined march for the young colts. Everything that I had only imagined to be a part of European football was happening in front of me. Despite not knowing anything about Indian football and the squad in particular, I did not feel excluded, what I had previously feared.
I had been to the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium quite a few times, during the 2010 Commonwealth Games or for concerts, but the spirit of the stadium on 9th October was unique, something I had never visualized of. I could not locate a seat for a good 20 minutes at first and when I finally found one, I was lucky to be seated near the Blue Pilgrims group. Well, if you do not know anything about the Pilgrims, I will help you out, like one of the strangers did for me in the stands. It’s a group of like-minded Indian football fans with their chants and banners, ready to be there for the team in every condition.
The national anthem, especially in India is of great significance and I had the privilege of singing it with 48 thousand other spectators. Watching your team hymn the national anthem while you do the same in attention sent a shiver down my spine. I knew that regardless of the game’s result, that moment would stay with me forever.
We were all on our toes almost the whole of the first half. Every save, punch, interception and even a run in the final third got us cheering. We would stand whenever Ninthoinganba Meetei and Rahul Kannoly Praveen ran down the channel, crossing the halfway line towards the Colombian goal and would still continue to cheer even if the attempt was nullified. Had it not been for the post, we would have to lead the game before halftime and after dominating the play for most of it we had a feeling that you lads would create history that day.
I have always been an Arjen Robben fan, ever since his Real Madrid days but watching India concede a Robben-esque goal was like a knife through the heart. It was when we realized that the second half would be a whole different affair than the first one. However, we did answer them back. We did score a goal within just six minutes of falling behind but were offside. We were all disheartened, in grief until Sanjeev Stalin, went along to take that now famous corner kick.
I remember thinking to myself “something’s got to give, there are far too many people here for an U-17 game. If football in India has to get to where it needs to be it needs a story, a narrative to tell. The ball’s got to be sharp and low. Anything hanging up in the air for too long will be lost. Get your side foot under the ball and swing it past, not through. This is it. This one’s going in.” Before I could complete my thought Jeakson Singh was at the end of the delivery with a perfect header and when he scored that goal, I knew I was in love again, this time with Indian football. Before I could come out of my own thoughts the crowd was going crazy.
The fans in the stadiums created an aura of optimism and an urge to fight for the win.
We were still goofing around celebrating the first ever Indian goal at a FIFA World Cup goal when we noticed Juan Penaloza again marching towards Dheeraj Moirangthem and for a split second it crossed my mind, “He is going score and end everything” and in the next moment I saw the Colombian players running towards their coach with much happiness. I knew everything had ended, we could not expect much from you against Ghana and honestly, this wasn’t your fault. We had our hopes high, yet you all gave us the power to dream.
Post the game, bought some water & chips at a grocery shop in Meharchand. The shopkeeper saw my India jersey and asked “India ka kya hua? Haar gaya jeet gaya?” Haar gaya par acha khela,” I told him. He wasn’t impressed by my statement. “Par ab toh bahar ho gaya na” Nahi chance to hai ‘thoda abhi bhi’ I said to him as I walked away smiling, happy that he was following the sport.
In spite of not being able to go forward, you lads gave us the power to dream, a dream of a world cup. This is not a failure or an end, it is the start of a new life, a revolution that only depends on how we are going to take this forward. Even though I was never an Indian football fan, you all made me one. When you lost against Ghana the other night, I was crying. At that particular moment, I knew our bond is going to last long.
Just another European football fanatic