Not many people know about the incredible campaign of the Indian Football Team in the Olympic games of 1956. At the time when the Olympic football was considered almost at par with the World Cup, the national side reached the semifinal of the showpiece event. One of the unsung heroes of Indian Football, Neville D’Souza finished the competition as the joint top scorer, and also holds a feat of being the first Asian to score a hat-trick in the Olympic games. The last time India participated in any tournament of that stature was in the Olympic of 1960. Things had taken an ugly turn on the football field, which has improved off late. With India set to host the FIFA U-17 World Cup, it earns a direct qualification spot. India’s participation would be the first time the nation of over a billion people will participate in a World Cup of any kind and the nation would be brimming with a lot of hope from the young champs when the step in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to face the United States on Friday.
Dwelling on the past: How good has been the team?
The Indian Colts dubbed as the Blue Cubs in reference to the senior team (Blue Tigers) have nothing less than a steep mountain to climb. The Indian side has seen everything in over a year. Firstly coach Nicolai Adams was sacked after strings of disappointing results just eight months prior to the mega-meeting. While Luis Norton de Matos was handed over the reins, the expectations have nowhere reduced. With huge amount spent on exposure trips, the squad has traveled along the length of the world. The squad had registered some impressive results in the trips, but the three major tournaments were something disappointing.
While participating in the AFC U-16 Championship at Goa, India finished last in the group, while a similar suit followed in the BRICS U-16 Championship last year. In the Asian Championship, India was guilty of conceding late in the matches to UAE and Saudi Arabia, while the team was blanked by eventual finalists Iran in the final game of the group. In the BRICS tournament, India found it hard to break the defenses. Though India finished last in the campaign, the margin of results was relatively less. India only succumbed to Brazil, who went on to claim the championship. It was in that match, Indian prodigy Komal Thatal scored an incredible solo goal against the South American rivals.
After a series of exposure trips in Europe under Matos, India traveled to Mexico for Torneo de 4 Naciones. In the tournament, India was drubbed aside by Mexico and Colombia (who happen to be group rivals in the World Cup), India salvaged an impressive draw against Chile. While traveling half the world can be considered a reason for lackluster performance in the opening two games, the team stunned the world by holding up Chile. Even though India finished at the bottom of the table, playing World class teams could prove to be a vital experience. India based a preparatory camp in Bengaluru before winning a friendly against Mauritius in Goa in September. India currently trains in the NCR before they face the Americans in the first match.
The players to watch out for this World Cup
The Indian side is led by midfielder Amarjit Singh Kiyam, the Manipuri is a product of the Chandigarh Football Academy. The skipper will be someone to keep an eye on. Amarjit is blessed with good leadership ability and his calmness in the midfield can be vital. He would be vital for generating attacks and will play an equal part in foiling the counterattacks.
Widely considered as India’s answer to Gareth Bale, Aniket Jadhav is blessed with pace. A part of AIFF setup, Jadhav is a key member of the Matos squad. He went on to represent India in an FC Bayern Munich camp as a 14-year old. He has been a regular for the national team at all levels, one can expect Jadhav to light up the wings, something Matos is known to focus on tactically.
Aiding Jadhav would be Komal Thatal, the most important playmaker in the squad. Like his idol Coutinho, he can blast shots from range. A goal apiece against Brazil and Uruguay has certainly boosted his confidence. The Sikkim lad would be one to look out for this World Cup and can be pivotal in India moving into the knockout phase of the competition.
Bengaluru boy Sanjeev Stalin is yet another player to keep a check on. The ambidextrous fullback is as vital to the squad as anyone else. A set-piece expert, Stalin would play an important role in lighting up attacks and diffusing the defense. Sanjeev is someone not limited by position, and he can help India bail out some crunch situations this World Cup with his match-winning capabilities.
Sitting at the heart of the defense is Anwar Ali. The Minerva Punjab boy made a cut into the national side after they beat the national side in Matos’ first game in charge. Initially rejected by Adams, Ali is an important member of the Matos squad and his towering presence in the defense would be something to look out for this month.
The last line of defense, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem would play an important role between the sticks. Capable of pulling out impressive saves, the former Badminton player will play a crucial part to save the team from dangers at times. The experienced shot-stopper will be someone to bank upon, especially in a tough group as this.
Opponent watch: The blazing guns from America
India starts off their campaign against a formidable USA side. There lies a huge difference between the two sides. While a majority of US players are part of MLS youth sides, Indian players hardly have any such connection. The captain Josh Sargent has already earned a move to Werder Bremen and was a part of the U-20 side in the World Cup this year. Even though the USA would start as the hot favorites in the match, the coach had some different opinion. The excerpt in the Times of India read,
“We’ve played India once before, we were successful against them. But it wasn’t in the opening game of the World Cup, it wasn’t them hosting a World Cup. My feeling is that, and from the information I’ve heard, there’s going to be a very loud,” said coach John Hackworth.
“They (India) are incredibly athletic and hard-working team. We are going to have to beat the host country in the opening game and that is a difficult challenge,” he added.
While US coach doesn’t want to take India lightly, Matos knows their quality, and he knows a lot would depend on Dheeraj of how the match shapes up.
“They (USA) will be strong in attack, and we have to prepare to counter their attack. We have to be strong in defense,” Matos talked about the quality of US side.
The expectations from the match
Even though the USA would start as the favorites, India at home can never be underestimated. While a packed stadium is expected in Delhi, the way the young US players handle the pressure would be interesting. With both sides good on the attack a number of goals can be expected.
The match set to make history in Indian Football would begin at 8 PM IST on Friday, 6th October 2017 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi. The match would be aired by the Sony network in India.
Be ready for the countdown, and keep your fingers crossed. A new chapter in the footballing script of India is set to be written, make sure you are a part of it.