India’s young footballers may have come away from the U17 World Cup without a point, but plenty of plaudits and experience have been earned
Despite seven Olympic gold medals racked up in field hockey, the Indian men’s team played their first World Cup in 1971 in Barcelona, but only ended up with a bronze.
Having started playing test cricket in 1932, the Indian team, led by Srinivasa Venkataraghavan, played their first World Cup in 1975. But they could only beat East Africa, a team with cricketers from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and North Rhodesia.
Even in their second World Cup four years later, they failed to win a single match in the group stages, losing to the West Indies, New Zealand and the debutants Sri Lanka.
India’s U17 side played their first FIFA World Cup without any competitive experience and lost all three of their group matches to their more illustrious opponents, conceding nine goals and scoring just one.
Fishes out of water at the highest stage like the Indian senior cricket teams were in 1975 and 1979? Not really. The U17 Indian footballers have made their country proud. Aside from a certain section of critics and ex-footballers, common Indians, the ‘aam-aadmi’, were behind their boys.
According to the FIFA rankings table, the USA is placed at 28, Colombia amongst the top ten and Ghana are in 52nd while India’s rank, despite all the ‘calculated’ success-stories of India coach Stephen Constantine, is 107.
That is the reason why Luis Norton de Matos, the Portuguese coach of the Indian U17 team, in his last press conference of his World Cup after losing to Ghana 0-4, said, “I want to see the result of the senior team playing against these teams (USA, Colombia and Ghana) in an official tournament, not against Nepal, Maldives or Bhutan.” Needless to say, that did not satisfy the egos of the English coach in charge of the senior team and his supporters.
True, India had been drawn in one of the toughest groups. The standings prove it beyond doubt. India had zero points while the other three teams earned six each. On the morning of the last round of matches for each team in Group A, USA were at the top of the table. At the end, they were third.
Matters could have been different for India if they were placed in a comparatively easier group. Or, if the soft penalty was not awarded to the US in the first match. If Komal Thatal could have scored the first goal in the first match. If the Indians could have scored before the Colombian strike in the second…the story goes on and on.
But the fact remains what the coach said before the start of the tournament – that the weakest link for his players was their conversion rate. “They would score one from seven while more mature teams score one in every three opportunities.” In the tournament, India converted one from six.
They were in ecstasy after Jeakson Singh scored their historic first goal against Colombia. They wanted to celebrate the strike in such a way that they had forgotten everything else on earth, let alone their defensive organization. India conceded within a minute of scoring.
That happens when you are such an inexperienced side. Mistakes are natural in age group tournaments. As Matos said, an error is not the end of the world. It is a part of the learning process. They would never forget their duties after scoring a goal.
What hurt India the most is the lack of experience in playing competitive matches. The coach had also pointed out the same and tried to emphasis mental training. How to keep composure in a match. How to be cool and not to lose their heads. Easy to preach, difficult to execute. Every player knows these things, yet there are so many red and yellow cards, so many penalties, so many penalty-misses. You have to play matches, actual tournaments. Only then you can be prepared to play a World Cup. The Indian team did not play a single competitive match before the biggest event. They were made to pay.
But the Indians are not worried. There is renewed confidence in this generation of footballers. They lost, okay. But they played their hearts out. They were not afraid of their better opponents. They wanted to compete with the more skilled and better built, properly trained teams. That was enough to encourage them.
The AIFF have retained de Matos. These boys will be playing in the AFC U19 qualifiers. The AIFF has plans to make a team with these U17 and U19 boys to play in the forthcoming Ieague, that starts around mid-November to allow them to grow.
Football may not have taken over India, but there are encouraging signs everywhere. The U17 tournament has shown the world that the Jeaksons and the Amarjits can play ball. They can be defeated but cannot be destroyed.