Fifa Under-17 World Cup: 5 youngsters to watch out for
Twenty-one names were announced on 21 September: these players will be part of India’s first-ever Under-17 football World Cup team as the nation gears up to host its maiden Fifa event starting on 6 October.
The World Cup is not just looked at as a chance to impress the sporting world’s most powerful and controversial body, but also as a festival to kick-start what many hope will be a football revolution in a country which has often been termed as the “sleeping giant” of the sport.
It’s no surprise that eight of the 21 players are from Manipur, the hot spot of Indian football. There are three players each from Punjab and West Bengal and the rest are from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Mizoram, Kerala and Sikkim.
The team has been around the globe for preparatory tours and still bears the stamp of former coach Nicolai Adam, who left his post earlier this year. Current man-in-charge Luís Norton de Matos hasn’t tinkered too much with the lineup but it will be interesting to see whether there is a change in approach.
While Adam spoke of pragmatism, Matos’ words are spirited and point to a more direct and organized approach. Whether that translates on to the pitch remains to be seen. The only thing common between both men is their choice of players—and as India gets ready to take on the US in their opener on 6 October in Delhi, here are five players who are most likely to make the spine of the team.
Dheeraj Singh (goalkeeper, Manipur)
Singh is the standout No.1 for Matos, having the most number of appearances among the three goalkeepers in the side. He has a penchant for saving penalties and did so twice in the AFC U-16 Championship last year.
His weakness is coming out for set-pieces but decision-making is something that most young goalkeepers suffer from. His calm presence in one-on-ones is reassuring though and while he’s not much of a screamer—his command of the box is notable.
Experience has played its part in honing his talent—Singh has been with national teams since 2013 and also won the U-16 SAFF Championship that year.
Sanjeev Stalin (defender, Karnataka)
India’s chief set-piece taker is equally strong off both feet and is unfazed in the face of being part of a historic side. Stalin would play on either of the wings before Adam moulded him into a left-back.
“I love attacking. I like scoring. I like going forward. But I am also working on my defensive skills since I’m the left-back of the team,” Stalin says over the phone from Goa.
One of his standout moments is scoring from the half-line early in his career. He is driven by his desire to fulfil his father’s dream of playing professionally and will certainly get there at this rate.
“It’s a wonderful moment for us—we’ll be remembered as part of this team forever—and even after we leave the world,” he says.
Komal Thatal (attacking midfielder/forward, Sikkim)
Thatal’s deft skill and acceleration make him India’s primary attacking outlet. With eight goals in competitive matches, he is India’s top-scorer. But his flamboyant approach to football is in stark contrast to the way he handles the weight of expectation.
“For me, the World Cup is just another step in my career,” he says.
Thatal’s ability to understand his strengths only adds to his confidence—“dribbling past players is my main strength,” he says—and he is the perfect foil to the taller and stronger Aniket Jadhav, who will most probably lead the line.
“Scoring against Brazil was an amazing moment for me personally because I will always be remembered as the Indian who scored against Brazil,” Thatal says about his goal which he scored at the Brics tournament in Goa last year.
At the World Cup, India will be expecting some stellar moments from him.
Suresh Singh Wangjam (midfielder, Manipur)
The Indian skipper is also the heart of the midfield. With strong upper body strength and a quick turn, Wangjam can set the tempo of a game if given the chance to.
His passing is assured and clever but he has also been blamed for giving away possession cheaply. That probably comes from his creativity overriding his ability to recognize that simplicity is sometimes the best way to create spaces. But he’s not just a passing presence in the team.
Wangjam can score goals—and slammed four of them as India qualified for the AFC U-16s on merit. In the tournament itself last year, he tucked away a penalty in the 97th minute of a thrilling 3-3 draw with Saudi Arabia. That sort of confidence will be much required for India to not be overrun in midfield at the World Cup.
Boris Singh Thangjam (defender, Manipur)
Thangjam is in the mould of a modern-day wingback. Tough in his tackles, he also possesses the phenomenal skill to go forward. Usually playing from the right, Thangjam’s ability to contribute to the midfield build-up and attack while going forward is priceless.
Adam’s side played in a 4-3-3 formation regularly and this allowed Thangjam to go forward more frequently. Matos will have certainly noted this ability but will also have seen a profligacy in defensive positioning and a knack for getting booked early on.
A sprinter before taking to football full-time, Thangjam’s energy and enthusiasm make him a brilliant player to watch and quite possibly the most entertaining of the lot.
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