What does heartbreak feel like? Ask 48,000 Indian football fans at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium

The reaction in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to Juan Penaloza’s second goal for Colombia, in their crucial FIFA U-17 World Cup match against India can become a study in how quickly it’s possible for a human heartbeat to drop to its lowest. Just as over 48,000 Indian fans were preparing to will their team on to score a winner in their do-or-die Group A match, Penaloza was found in Indian goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh’s box by a lobbed ball from Gustavo Carvajal, and he made no mistake in putting it to Singh’s right. Just moments before this, Jeakson Singh Thounaojam was celebrating becoming India’s first goal-scorer in a World Cup, the roar of the crowd causing the foundations of the stadium to tremble. As Penaloza now wheeled away in celebration towards the Colombian bench, roars were replaced by a sickening silence. It was unbelievable. One Indian fan, even an hour after the match ended in a 2-1 defeat for India was heard saying he “didn’t feel right.”

It was the kind of match which can make a non-believer believe in Indian football, and make seasoned observers of the game in India tear their hair out. Because as much as the country’s teams have improved in recent years, the manner in which the U-17 boys conceded the second goal of the night was exasperatingly familiar – no one tracking the free man in the box, who then went on to deliver the sucker punch. To be fair, that was perhaps one of very few mistakes a revamped Indian defence consisting of Boris Singh and Namit Deshpande made on the night. But that’s what football at the very highest level is about. Even one mistake can have consequences.

Jeakson Singh created history on the night with this header

When the dust on this loss settles, the match will be remembered for the time playing an Indian football team was described as ‘stressful’ by the manager of Colombia, an international powerhouse of footballing talent. It will be remembered for Jeakson Singh being the first Indian goalscorer at a World Cup. It will be remembered for the time Luis Norton de Matos, Portuguese coach of the Indian U-17 football team folded his hands, then raised them in gratitude towards the crowd along with the rest of his team at the full time whistle for turning out in huge numbers and supporting the team. And for the time that a usually hard to please crowd gave a standing ovation to the team which lost on the night.

After suffering a 3-0 loss to USA in their opening group game, India were keen to not repeat the same mistakes which led to that scoreline. Rahim Ali replaced Aniket Jadhav in the starting line-up, and Boris Singh’s return to the team meant that by extension, Komal Thatal dropped to the bench to accommodate the energetic Rahul KP on the left wing. It was when the game settled down after the first 10 minutes with both teams trying the long-ball tactic till that point, that India started to make their presence felt.

In the 16th minute, Abhijit Sarkar exchanged a couple of quick passes on the edge of the box after a throw-in and made his way into the Colombian box, but keeper Kevin Mier spread himself well to prevent the ball from going into the back of the net from the subsequent shot. His shoulder was what stopped India from scoring their first World Cup goal. The first half as a whole, consisted of skirmishes on every part of the pitch, battles in which the Indian players stood up well to the physical challenge that the imposing Colombian players posed.

Boris Singh was instrumental in preventing the threat of Colombian left-winger Leandro Campaz

In the stands, the now famous Icelandic viking claps would intermittently break out in the more vociferous sections of the crowd. Colombia’s passing on the pitch was as metronomic as the claps as they slowly grew into the game. But Indian captain Amarjit Singh Kiyam, and Jeakson Singh Thounaojam (who replaced Suresh Singh Wangjam in the starting line-up) kept laying into the Colombian ball carriers in midfield to keep their threat at bay. The dangerous Yadir Meneses was given a free role in the middle of the pitch by Colombian coach Orlando Restrepo, who was contained well by the duo. Whenever Colombia did have a shot at goal – and there were a couple of extremely good attempts – the acrobatic Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem made sure that the goalposts were not breached. The crowd grew louder with every diving save that he made, and soon chants of “Dheeraj, Dheeraj!” rang around the stadium.

For as well as India were defending, their attacking play largely left a lot to be desired. There were improvements in that department from the first match against USA, but the front four will need to operate more as a unit rather than individuals if they are to hurt strong teams in the future. Still, the signs were encouraging. Right before half-time, India had another golden opportunity to take the lead.

Rahul Kannoly Praveen, with time and space just inside the left side of the box chested the ball down and laced a left-footed volley towards the goal. Mier was beaten, and had the shot been just a few inches towards the right, the ball would have nestled into the net rather than ricocheting off the goalpost. That’s twice now that India have hit the woodwork in this World Cup. If there is a footballing god, one wonders whether he’ll have a good justification for this bad luck.

India went into half-time with the scores at 0 – 0, and started the second half with more intent, showing confidence on the ball. Sadly, they were soon punished for not capitalizing on the chances in the first half. Juan Penaloza cut inside from the right flank, and unleashed a bullet of a shot around Sanjeev Stalin. It was too good for even Dheeraj to save. There was no time to mull on the disappointment of conceding for India, there was still a job at hand. To their credit, they kept their chins up and continued in the same way they had been playing up till that point.

Luis Norton de Matos had been belting out instructions to his team throughout the match

Aniket Jadhav came on for Abhijit Sarkar, and the impressive Nongdamba Naorem was brought on for Boris Singh Thangjam as India went into all out attack mode to try and secure the equalizer. The new entrants on the pitch made the difference almost immediately. Jadhav showed good skills to beat his marker on the edge of the box and played the ball into Naorem’s feet. Naorem then beat a Los Cafeteros defender with a body feint to the left and tried to slide the ball under Kevin Mier’s feet. Mier got just enough contact on the ball to divert its trajectory from the path of goal. In the stands, the cycle of get-up-in-anticipation to place-rear-on-seat continued.

Then, a few minutes later, came the moment. It was Aniket Jadhav who chased down a ball that was going out of play, a ball that would have been very easy to give up on had it not been for the situation the team found itself in. Through sheer will, after sprinting for almost half the length of the pitch, Jadhav won a corner. India’s set piece specialist Sanjeev Stalin approached the corner flag in the absence of Komal Thatal, and the crowd rose in anticipation once again. With the decibel levels increasing, Stalin began his short run up in the hope of curling the ball towards an opportunistic Indian head. It was a perfect cross. Jeakson, India’s tallest player on the pitch leaped between two Colombian defenders and sent a powerful header crashing into the net. This time Mier was helpless, left flapping his hands at air. India had their first World Cup goal in the 82nd minute and the scores were level. On the pitch and in the stands, an Indian goal has probably never been celebrated with such an overwhelming sense of release.

“It was a nice experience and I felt on cloud nine when I scored the goal, however we tried our best but were unlucky. It is obviously a great feeling to score for my country in a FIFA World Cup but it would have been sweeter had we won the match.” – Jeakson Singh Thounaojam

What followed was a footballing cliche playing itself out as accurately as it could. A team is most vulnerable and likely to concede a goal immediately after it has scored. Concentration in defence, a quality that de Matos described as one of his team’s strengths in the post match press conference, was absent when Penaloza tucked the ball into the net to give Colombia the lead once again. The crowd went quiet. Anyone who was there to experience that moment at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium would tell you that silence has a sound too. And heartbreak has a face, there were over 48,000 of those on display.

As much as the Indian U-17 team would try to make their way back into the game, and as much as the crowd would try to lift the team’s spirits once again, it wasn’t to be. However, Colombian coach Orlando Restrepo was the first to admit in the post-match press conference that his side did not expect such a tough game. “I congratulate the Indian players and coach for the will and desire they had to win. We had to make a lot of tactical adjustments in the beginning because we were struggling. The two Indian centre-backs and the whole team did an unbelievable job in organizing themselves throughout the match.”

It was a tough result to take for the Indian U-17 boys

Meanwhile, Luis Norton de Matos was asked if he’ll be able to sleep after the result. His team had come within touching distance of creating history. “I sleep with the sentiment that the players played a fantastic game,” he said. “The Indian players showed to everybody that we can play at the same level as teams like Colombia. It was a dream six months ago, that we could have given such a performance against a South American team. I’m also frustrated, because I thought we played well enough to at least get a draw. We had a big chance to score first. If we scored first then we had a big chance to get a result in this game.”

No team in football has a divine right to victory, but it did feel like a fairytale was being written when India equalized. India’s first World Cup at any level, India’s first World Cup goal at any level, surely the team deserved more. The boys in blue had only themselves to blame. They will learn. But had Colombia not read the script? Evidently not. Mathematically, India can still qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament with a win against Ghana, and if results in their own group and other groups go overwhelmingly in their favour. As long as it’s still possible, this team will keep fighting till the very end.

As for the fans gathered at the stadium, there was a sense of satisfaction too, to go along with the underlying disappointment. “We’re happy to have witnessed India scoring its first ever goal in a FIFA World Cup,” said a bunch of three. “This was historic,” another one draped from head to toe in blue was heard saying.

De Matos might have eventually gotten sleep. Yes, the same could probably be said for the other 48,354 gathered at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium too. The hope is that when they wake up, it will be to a promising daybreak in Indian football.

 

 

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