Millennium Post

FIFA U-17 World Cup: No points, but Indians played with great passion

India was not bound to dominate the proceedings at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. But there were some positives to take away from the tournament, writes Sridhar Venkatesh

India's maiden FIFA Under-17 World Cup campaign went very much the way it was expected to go. In a group filled with heavyweights such as Colombia, USA and Ghana, India was not bound to dominate the proceedings. The Indian colts were unable to win any point from their three games – all played at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium – as they had to play an opposition physically and skilfully more superior to them on all occasions. However, to say that there were no positives to be taken from India's performances would be an unfair statement.

The criteria for progression to the knockout stages in the U-17 World Cup, as seen commonly in most FIFA tournaments, are based on points, goal difference and goals scored. In its first game on October 6, India faced off against a USA team filled with youngsters gifted with both the physique and the skill-set required for playing at the highest level.
The US team boasted of strong, gifted forwards like Timothy Weah, Ayo Akinola and skipper Josh Sargent. While Sargent had accumulated 18 goals from 30 appearances for the U-17 team before reaching India, Akinola had amassed an impressive 24 goals in 25 games. Weah, on the other hand, is plying his trade at French giants Paris Saint-Germain at the club level. This is proof enough that the front line of strikers playing for the Americans was far more experienced than their Indian counterparts.
The game had begun on a rather encouraging note, with India keeping their opponents at bay for a majority of the first half. Things, however, took a drastic turn in the 30th minute, when star striker Sargent was fouled inside the Indian penalty box and won a penalty for his team. Sargent made no mistake and converted from the spot to give USA a lead. The second half began with USA dominating the Indian side, and the Americans soon got the well-deserved fruit for their labour. A freak goal by defender Chris Durkin off a misdirected corner clearance by Indian goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem gave USA its second goal in the 51st minute.
The two-goal lead for USA caused them to take things a bit lightly, resulting in India creating a chance in the 83rd minute. With the ball having reached his feet while inside the USA box, Anwar Ali struck a ferocious right foot, only to hit the US woodwork. The resultant counter presented the US team with the opportunity, that midfielder Andrew Carleton grabbed with both hands in the 84th minute. USA thus went on to win the game comfortably, 3-0.
Luckily for India, more embarrassment was avoided, thanks to the fine anticipatory skills of goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem Singh, who made some impressive saves. India's defence, however, was not up to the mark and failed to win balls in crunch situations. The forward line did indeed disappoint a lot, as strikers Abhijit Sarkar and Anwar Ali could not capitalise useful chances.
The second match against Colombia was perhaps India's most credible chance of opening its account in group A. The South Americans had lost their first group encounter against Ghana by a solitary goal and the game showed that the Colombian boys were not as skilful as one would have expected them to be. The October 9 game against Colombia was, in many ways, India's pathway to the knockout phase. Alas, it was not to be.
Once again, a boisterous crowd participated in India's endeavour to make a fight out of India's second group fixture at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, with each forward run and each tackle to snatch the ball off the Colombians' feet inviting loud cheers and whistles
from the fans.
Late in the first half, fullback Rahul Kannoly's left-footed volley hit the framework of the goal. This was the closest India got to score their first goal in the first 45 minutes. With a spirited performance in the first half, the Indian colts ensured that they would not be trailing when they returned to the dressing room.
What the Colombians had on their side, however, was the possession. And it was this possession which transformed into a goal in the second half. At the 49th minute, winger Juan Penaloza made a penetrating run through the left flank, successfully taking on no less than three defenders and tucked the ball into the bottom right corner to give Colombia the lead.
This goal was perhaps what charged up the Indian colts, who began making probing runs into the Colombian third with more gusto than before. Their efforts did finally pay off, as in the 82nd minute a corner taken by Ninthoinganba was pounced upon by lanky midfielder Jeakson Singh to give India its first ever goal in a FIFA tournament. The crowd went wild and the team was more charged up than ever.
Little did the Indian boys realise that the ecstasy of their equaliser would be their undoing. Having lost their concentration for a while, the Indian defence loosened up a bit, only for Penaloza to capitalise again and score the winner for Colombia. The game ended in heartbreak for India once again, but it also shows glimpses of brilliance from India's young Manipuri keeper Dheeraj, who made five brilliant saves in the course of 90 minutes.
India's final game was against a Ghanaian side, who were coming after a narrow defeat at the hands of USA. That, however, did not dim their spirits in any way, as they were firing on all cylinders against India, in the last fixture of Group A on October 12. India made four changes to their starting line-up, as did Ghana. Most notably, Nongdamba Naorem filled the right flank to add pace for the Indians. However, once the game began, the difference in quality was particularly glaring. Ghanaian skipper Eric Ayiah scored twice in both halves, in the 43rd and 52nd minutes, which was enough to demoralise the Indian defence. Once they got going in the second half, there was no looking back for the Ghanaians. Second half substitutes Richard Danso and Emmanuel Toku both struck for their side, in the 86th and 87th minutes respectively, to give the four goals to India's zero.
While there were signs of promise for the Indians in the games against USA and Colombia, the game against Ghana was not one of those. The Indian boys were outclassed by their Ghanaian counterparts in terms of their tactical astuteness, as Ghanian coach Samuel Fabin made very effective changes after learning from his defeat against the United States of America in the previous game. More importantly, Ghana physically towered above India, both literally and metaphorically. However, fans once again poured out in great numbers to appreciate the efforts of the Indian youngsters, who once again played their heart out in spite of their lack of finesse.

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