How a 3-0 defeat to USA left India feeling hopeful, on a night of firsts at the FIFA U-17 World Cup

Amarjit Singh Kiyam was the first one from the Indian team to step onto the JLN Stadium pitch, on a day when India played its first FIFA World Cup match at any level. The captain took one step, then he took another, soon the whole team followed, and they raised their arms together in appreciation of the crowd that had already gathered in the stadium to witness history. Just like that, they went from taking small, slow steps of the pitch, into a jog, to confidently embracing the occasion. The 2017 FIFA World Cup in India is designed to do just that for Indian football in the future.

The Indian U-17 team, in a show of unison with the crowd before warm-up

There is a reason why it’s worth starting off with optimism on a day the Indian U-17 team lost their first group game of the World Cup by a scoreline of 3-0 to USA U-17. Because even though the scoreline sounds emphatic, the day, really, was meant to be a celebration of the fact that the Indian team gets to show they can rough it out with teams of superior quality on paper. It will sound funny, but that the USA did not score a single goal on the night through a move that covered their own attacking quartet in glory, is a starting point. It is also a point which is equally frustrating for India, but thank god for small mercies.

A decade back, an Indian football team that conceded the first goal in an international match would have crumbled, lost their shape on the pitch in a desperate attempt to equalize, and shipped in a torrent of goals. Here’s how the three goals were conceded by the Indian U-17 team against USA –

1-0 : Josh Sargent tries to beat Indian defender Jitendra Singh on the wing. He’s not even fully past Singh that the Indian defender, in an act of inexperience, tugs at his shirt even as another defender was present to deal with Sargent’s threat. Sargent falls to the ground, wins a penalty, and tucks the ball in the bottom left hand corner of the goal.

2-0 : USA wins a corner shortly after the second half begins, and the first line of Indian defence fails to clear the ball. It falls at waist height to defender Chris Durkin, who volleys with his left foot on the spin. It hits Indian centre back Anwar Ali’s thigh en-route to finding the back of the net.

3-0 : India win a corner, with fifteen minutes to go till full-time. The ball finds its way to Anwar Ali, who is left with what feels like all the time in the world to place it into the net. USA goalkeeper Justin Garces charges at Ali, and the Indian defender’s shot hits the crossbar. In the same move, USA initiates a counter attack, taking advantage of the players India had committed forward for the corner. A lobbed ball finds No. 11 Andrew Carleton one on one with Indian goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh. He takes the ball past a helpless Singh and places it into an empty net.

There were two broad themes running through the entire match. Indian defiance, and Indian mistakes. And the only occupants of the latter category are the aforementioned three goals. India had no choice but to play a defensive game, against an opponent which had players that are five to six years ahead of them in terms of individual football development. Keeping that context in mind, the boys should be cut some slack. Not once did their shoulders drop. Not once did they throw in the towel. Not once did they accept defeat. That is reason to be optimistic.

Indian coach Luis Norton de Matos looked a dejected figure at the post match press conference, but not a defeated one. “If we score the goal which Anwar Ali hit against the crossbar, the complexion of the match completely changes in the last 15 minutes. USA then sets their team up to secure the result. Not play openly in spaces,” he said. He was right. “We conceded stupid goals.”

Meanwhile, USA coach John Hackworth conceded that it was initially tough to break the Indian defence down. “I have to praise them. Their goalkeeper also played really well. He made some amazing saves. The first save against Josh Sargent – he normally doesn’t miss chances like that, but the goalkeeper did well to stand his ground.”

Ninthoingamba Meetei was quick on the right wing

If there is one area where the finger of blame could be pointed towards the Indian players, it’s in transitional play. Every time the Indian players got a chance to foray into the USA half, they were let down by a stray pass. And these are not 40 yard cross-field passes we are talking about. Simple passes into the feet of a free teammate were not executed properly. It’s a problem India will need to address in their next two group games, against Colombia and Ghana, if they are to stand any chance of making it into the knockout stages of a tournament. It’s a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless.

Komal Thatal was a bright spark for the Indian team throughout the match, as were Suresh Singh Wangjam and Dheeraj Singh. Thatal had a golden opportunity to make the score 2-1 by lobbing the ball over Justin Garces, but it landed to the left side of the goal. His runs were encouraging, and his confidence on the ball to take on an opponent is pleasing to see. The same can be said for Nongdamba Naorem, who came on as a substitute and surprised the USA defenders with his pace and trickery. Wangjam hit a left-footed shot destined for the top left hand corner of the goal, but the USA defence blocked it before it could take full flight and clock miles on the speed gun. Dheeraj made a string of saves that definitely enhanced his reputation of being a rising star. It seems, India is always well stocked in the goalkeeping department.

Komal Thatal was one of the most promising performers on the pitch for India

Yes, there is reason to be optimistic. And not many teams can say that on a day they lose 3-0. The frustration in the Indian players’ eyes each time they conceded a goal was there for everyone to see. “It’s over,” USA number 11 Andrew Carleton said to the crowd while celebrating after scoring his team’s third goal. That can’t be said for India’s tournament hopes, however. The Indian boys will have a chance to prove that, when they take to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium pitch once again on 9th October, in the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

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