We take you through the Indian Colts’ journey and a little beyond.
India, as hosts, qualified automatically for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, and it was the first time the South Asian team participated in a FIFA event. The dream of playing in a football World Cup came true and the country rejoiced and backed 21 young stars as they walked the fire to make it even better. A lot of fans would say it had ended even before it started, but Khel Now will, over the course of this piece, show you that India were agonizingly close to getting there.
A lot of hopes were killed on the 07th of July, as the hosts drew Ghana, Colombia and the USA in Group A and practical expectations pinned no points on us from the word go. India had prepared for the last three years for the event, with infrastructural developments, creating the right kind of buzz and creating the team which would face the ultimate stARLETS from seven continents.
Cometh the hour, cometh the team! The tournament began with a bang, and everyone expected India to only salvage some pride against the USA team, with players like Josh Sargent, Tom Weah, John Gloster and Andrew Carleton. These players are in the USA Professional team, playing for MLS sides and are being scouted by several European biggies.
India 0-3 USA
The scoreline suggests that the visitors dominated the game, but no, they didn’t. It was a match of equal chances, and Indian centre-back Anwar Ali even hit the bar. On that same counter, Andrew Carleton made it a thrashing from an open game, running almost alone to Dheeraj’s box and converting. India had their fair share of chances, but the difference in finishing was there for everyone to see.
Also, the team probably played the occasion and not the game. Komal Thatal twisted and turned with his array of tricks, Aniket Jadhav ran as Blue Pilgrims cheered and Nongdamba Naorem twisted and turned past two US defenders after coming on, but never attempted any shots on goal.
India 1-2 Colombia
The dream of playing the FIFA World Cup came true in the first game and scoring the first ever goal at the tournament came alive in the next. Jeakson Singh’s well-placed header from Sanjeev Stalin’s curling corner will go down in Indian football’s history, but we know the story from there.
You’re most vulnerable to concede a goal when you’ve just scored one. A psyche-message that runs back to the mid-80s, proved it’s still relevant as India conceded their second of the game a minute later. Anwar and Amarjit had the game of their lives, jumping at every opportunity. Indians, known to be physically average, were shocked at the physical specimen they saw on the pitch. The team lost 2-1, but the boys were better than the opposition. A thing of pride? Yes.
India 0-4 Ghana
If the performance against Colombia raised hopes of this team playing as a unit and getting a slight possibility against Ghana, the first 20 minutes of the game strongly stamped that feeling. India attacked with vivacity, with power, and in numbers. Physicality, though, was an issue, as India didn’t win headers in the midfield or in and around the Ghana box. Getting bullied is not healthy for senior age groups, and here, these were kids of barely 17 being thrown off whenever they touched the ball in the air.
A flurry of second-half goals killed the competition and people vouched about their first prediction and not the one they made after watching India against Ghana. So, now that the review has been done, we take a look at what went wrong at the tournament for the Boys in Blue.
THE COACH FIASCO
If you’re preparing for a tournament which encapsulates the best out of 210 teams (one is the host), you simply cannot change managers eight months prior to the mega event. Nicolai Adam was removed with charges of physical abuse, and Luis Norton De Matos came in. A German work-hard-and-win style was changed to a Portuguese play-on-the-ball-and-win style.
In Germany, boys or rather kids, learn tactics in the age bracket of 11-13. Here in India, they do it in the age bracket of 15-17. Changing the setup, as well as the system they needed to believe and deliver in, wasn’t the best possible decision made. Yes, physical abuse is wrong, but had it started recently or was it being done for the last two years by Adam? There’s no one answering that. If it has been prevalent for that long, what kept the All India Football Federation (AIFF) from sacking him earlier?
Yes, Indian players are good in terms of speed and athleticism, but no, they cannot win headers against a burly Ghana. Football is slowly turning into an all-around game and there are clear demarcation lines of different philosophies. Lionel Messi, for one, is not someone who’s physically dominant in the air, but Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique help him with the ball at his feet, time and again, taking the prerogative with their aerial prowess.
In India, you can do two things. Create a team with the best players with the ball at their feet and a sturdy defence which is physically good enough, or a team that is physically bullying but average on the ball or something in the grey areas. Sadly, de Matos got it right in three departments of the game but gave a cold shoulder to the fourth one.
The Indian defence had Anwar, easily one of the best players at clearing the ball out. Stalin and Boris provided enough ball players on the defensive flanks. In the midfield, the sturdiness of Jeakson, Suresh and Amarjit provided enough cover for Shahjahan or even, Naorem and Komal. Up ahead, though, we had two physical strikers, who probably left their footballing shoes back home.
Aniket, at best, is a fast running winger who can play on the left of a three-striker system. Rahim presses high and with a lot of conviction and can be used to see out games. These two players, if what we saw in the three games is taken at face value, are not players you take to the World Cup; certainly not when you’re playing the USA, Ghana and Colombia.
Oh yes, we’re coming to this as well. Hendry Antony is a defender who sat on the bench throughout the tournament as Rahul KP started in the right-back position. Rahul didn’t make too many mistakes, except for leaving too much space behind him as Josh Sargent took a one-on-one against Jitendra, who tried to stop the US No. 9 after being nutmegged. Rahul, though, shouldn’t be incriminated, as the lad gave his everything in all the three games and was one of the positives.
Against Colombia, the team did everything right. Played cohesively, Rahim pressed up high and Amarjit played in a more advanced role than what he did against the USA. Not too many loopholes, there. Namit added his strength and was a positional wonder alongside Anwar. One of the two players India converted from beyond borders had a good game, but was just a little slow.
‘Most kids dream of scoring the perfect goal. I’ve always dreamt of stopping it’: Iker Cassilas
Come Ghana, and India were a nightmare. The energy were sapped after a tiring display against Colombia and India lined up in a 4-3-3 and staring at the line-up, you know two-game substitute Nongdamba Naorem was set to be a threat from the left attacking forward position. From the first whistle to the point he was down and substituted, Naorem played on the right wing, showing his trickery at moments.
Aniket was back for this game, as Matos wanted to give his No. 1 forward another run to break his goal drought. Replicating the mistakes he did against the USA, the player played sans the team and at times, he looked bifurcated in terms of his positional sense, timing and control. How will the transition of the game happen on the pitch if the midfield and the forwards are too far apart against a fast, pressing opposition like Ghana?
The team has it in them to be at this level, but certainly with a few tweaks. Khel Now still can’t comprehend why Shubham Sarangi was left out when Shahjahan made the cut and why India didn’t push more numbers up against Ghana, knowing fully well that a defeat, irrespective of 4-0 or 8-0, would hardly affect the ultimate result.
We continue to believe in this side, knowing fully well that they’re here to stay. They need to right kind of grooming, composure and nutrition to ensure they’re not just with the best, but playing like the best. The present is the future, and if you see them on roads, on the social media or at games, cheer them, because they certainly gave everything they had. If you’ve got to blame, read this again and you would have your answers.