India's U-17 World Cup Opponents Served Up A Reality Check

Sunday, 15 October 2017|Akarsh Sharma
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India’s Fifa World Cup debut ended with three losses and a solitary goal. It glittered with encouragement, sure, but it also served as a reality check on how far the country stood from the upper echelons of world football.

There was a lesson to be learned from each of India’s three opponents. A comprehensive 0-3 defeat to the US came against a nation with burgeoning infrastructure but where football isn’t even a top-four sport and football culture, after great efforts to cultivate over the last three decades, is barely reached a middling stage. It tells you that India must start today.

A 0-4 humbling by Ghana came against a nation in which infrastructure is far poorer than in India but where football thrives on muddy fields and the game’s culture makes it conducive for its growth. What is India's excuse then? It certainly should not be "the lack of world-class facilities".

Sandwiched between the two above-mentioned losses was India’s most spirited display and smartest display, in a 1-2 loss to Colombia, which would have seen the hosts earn a deserved draw but for the concession of a late winner .The South Americans, though, were much superior to India technically but lacked a cutting edge in the final third to make that count. Colombia’s squad to India had six players from amateur sides which play and train mostly on free public pitches. The team’s star player, Juan Sebastian Penaloza, too plays for amateur side CD Estudiantil.

Another two Colombians were from clubs that are, as per one Colombian journalist, only barely ‘professional’—they pay their players a minimum wage of USD 300 (approximately Rs20,000) per month. In contrast, more than Rs15 Crore was spenton Indian U-17’s ‘exposure tours’ to 15 different countries where they trained in top-notch facilities and played competitive games against foreign teams.

None of India’s group-stage opponents made it beyond the quarterfinal stage. Both USA and Ghana reached the quarters, while Colombia exited in the Round of 16. If all the teams were ranked by points earned followed by goal difference (which is the difference between goals scored and goals conceded), India finished as the worst team in the competition. Other debutant nations left with something to show for: Niger beat North Korea 2-0, while New Caledonia held Japan to a remarkable 1-1 draw.

Nonetheless, the Indian team’s efforts were appreciated and applauded. They garnered immense support from football fans, both old and new. India’s presence in a Fifa World Cup had rallied the nation behind the team and the sport. It had taken 87 years and 78 World Cups for India to be associated with the competition in any capacity.

Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, India’s goalkeeper, was particularly popular for a range of spectacular saves. Anwar Ali, the central defender, too was lauded for his heroics at the back while central midfielder Jeakson Singh wrote himself into Indian football folklore by scoring India’s first-ever World Cup goal.

“You’ve won a billion hearts,” tweeted India’s sports minister and former Olympic medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. He was simply echoing the sentiments of the majority.

But amidst the euphoria of competing in a World Cup, and especially scoring in one, the gap which India needs to overcome to even come close to Asia's elite, let alone the world's elite, must be recognised.

It is a gap that can't be bridged in a few years. It needs decades of planning and persistence.