Under-17 World Cup: A new beginning for India
The junior football tournament hasn’t been a washout for the host team—rather, it is a promising sign for the future
There was a feeling of anxiety and anticipation ahead of the Under-17 Fifa World Cup draw on 7 July in Mumbai and, once it was over, one almost of resignation. India were drawn with the US, Ghana and Colombia. That’s a lot of pedigree.
The US have qualified for all but one (2013) U-17 World Cup. Colombia have a sketchy record in this age group but finished fourth two out of the five times they have qualified. Ghana are two-time world champions and finished runners-up in the U-17 African Cup of Nations in 2017.
One could be forgiven for predicting a drubbing for India—not just because of the gulf in class, but also because they had hired a new coach only in January, nine months before the World Cup.
Three matches later, it’s a different story. The resignation has turned into cautious hope and optimism. This despite India conceding nine goals in three losses: 0-3 vs the US, 1-2 vs Colombia and 0-4 vs Ghana. The ice between new coach Luis Norton de Matos and the media seems to have been broken. While everyone, including some big names in Indian football, may not agree with his tactics, Matos has introduced some qualities to this young Indian side: grit, resilience and organization.
India were outclassed, but they didn’t get pasted—it wasn’t a goal-fest in every game, and they certainly gave their opponents some nervous moments.
The US dominated early exchanges in the opening game, but India’s defence was surprisingly sure-footed. The US were left to ping long balls down the flanks and one of their openings yielded a penalty. It was a silly challenge, and the US were 1-0 up going into half-time thanks to a spot-kick.
In a pattern that could be seen throughout the first three games, India would come out of the blocks immediately when they were trailing by a goal. That would leave spaces at the back, which better teams know how to utilize.
The US added two more, but their killer third goal came seconds after India’s Anwar Ali’s shot cannoned off the crossbar. Matos called the goals “stupid” in the post-match press conference, because they were. India would have come back more strongly if Ali’s shot had gone in.
Colombia presented a different challenge. They were clearly taller and stronger than the US players—almost bullying the Indians in 50-50 challenges. But India’s defence was hardly going to bow down. Ali and Namit Deshpande were incredible as centre backs, something even Colombia’s coach acknowledged after the game.
Going into half-time at 0-0, both teams had everything to play for. Colombia drew first blood, and India came at them strongly. When their tallest player, Jeakson Singh, rose highest to thump in a headed equalizer, the crowd went mad.
With 8 minutes to go, India were 1-1 against a South American powerhouse. But such was the daze they were in after scoring that they conceded even before the celebrations had died down. The marking was in sixes and sevens and one defender played three Colombians onside as the team in yellow snatched a 2-1 win. India had struck the woodwork twice in this game as well, while scuffing at least two one-on-one chances.
“The second half was an entirely different ball game as we created chances and were willing to take them on. The moment we started keeping the ball in the second half, we looked a different team altogether,” India’s senior captain Sunil Chhetri wrote in his Goal.com column.
Within 180 minutes, India’s young guns had changed perception. The social media was abuzz with their performances. The media lauded their efforts while ruing their profligacy, but there was a clear sense of hope turning into uncertain belief. A belief that maybe something would give, that India deserved a result, that they were, in fact, capable of producing an upset.
That Delhi, despite ticketing problems, produced an atmosphere that refused to dampen in spite of three losses, was a tremendous plus point.
The reaction to Singh’s goal was more or less on the lines of the way U-17 World Cup project director Joy Bhattacharya felt. “I was there when Singh scored India’s first-ever World Cup goal. I was there when 55,000 spectators cheered India till the end. I was there when India’s goalkeeper Dheeraj (Singh) was given a standing ovation by the crowd when he walked out after the game. Something has fundamentally changed in Indian football. This is the day it changed.”
That fundamental change was the tinge of confidence that came before the Ghana encounter on 12 October. Anyone who has watched the sport knew that India had, like coach Matos said, “no chance... no chance”, against the African nation. But the largest crowd out of the three matches turned up that day—it was also the loudest.
This time, Matos gave more freedom to his attackers. Organization took a back seat as India left large defensive holes as they threw men forward. Their first push into Ghana’s box came in the first minute. But they also played into their hands—Ghana played a high tempo and India tried to match it.
After the match, Matos said: “At half-time, I saw the boys and thought they were coming in after playing 90 minutes.” India were hit for four goals, two of which came in the last 5 minutes as tiredness wore out the team.
But this tournament will not be remembered only for intangibles like hope and belief. For what is clear is that a football revolution cannot be based on three matches or a few years of training one group of boys. Issues that start at the grass roots—whether to shoot or pass, whether to carry the ball or release it, whether to clear it or play it—are basics where India were found wanting. The tournament brought out that reality.
“There is no football in this country—and that’s the reality. You cannot expect these boys to start winning in the World Cup. The gap between the teams and India is enormous and this is slow progress. You have to start early, when children are five or six years old, for progress. It is not about the money that you put in, but the organization that matters,” Matos said.
This was echoed in some ways by Ghana’s U-17 coach Samuel Fabin. “We are far behind in infrastructure when it comes to India—we cannot match up to them,” he said.
Matos also seemed to take a shot at how the senior team operates—a general complaint has been the failure to play stronger teams in friendlies, and reliance on lesser Asian teams for game-time: “We were not playing Mauritius or Nepal. We were playing against Ghana, US and Colombia in a World Cup and I would like to see how India’s senior teams perform against the senior teams of these nations. This experience at the World Cup is better than playing in the I-League or the Indian Super League (ISL). I know that when the ISL teams go to Europe, they lose to fourth-division teams in Spain. This is the reality.”
Matos made sure that India know its football reality. That said, his side have certainly shown that India can compete without fear on the world stage—something that most fans have never witnessed before. There is still a long way to go, but when one sees a group of young fans hold a banner for the U-17 team’s star goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh saying, “We came from Manipur to see you,” it raises your spirit. It fosters belief, among fans as well as players. That’s a start.