The USA, Colombia and Ghana. In their first global tournament, India were handed the toughest draw possible at a crisp ceremony in Mumbai. But coach Luis Norton de Matos exuded an air of defiance.
In a group that boasts teams of World Cup pedigree — USA and Colombia are former semi-finalists while Ghana are two-time champions — India are the novices. As debutants in any age-group of a football World Cup, there aren’t many expectations of the hosts. Given the opportunity, they just want to make the most of the experience. The coach asserts the team’s fearlessness. “We aren’t afraid, the boys aren’t scared,” he says.
There is a vast difference in playing experience that exists between the Indian teens and their foreign opposition. De Matos has tried to bridge that gap, and is still trying to squeeze in as many matches as possible before the tournament starts in three months. “Most of the players from the other teams at the World Cup have about 10 years of tournament experience. No matter how hard I try, I cannot replicate and make up for that match experience.” Yet in terms for preparation for the group, there is a useful coincidence that India has drawn Colombia. They will play in a four-team tournament in Mexico, which also features Colombia and Chile.
“I feel more confident about the draw because we get that match (against Colombia in Mexico) and I will know the team that we will play at the World Cup,” he says. “I already know Colombia very well. But it’s important we don’t make big monsters out of them because we have the other two teams to play as well.” A typical South American outfit with attacking flair, Colombia qualified for the tournament as the fourth best team in the regions U-17 Championships. It’s that same flavour that their coach promises the team will bring with them when they come to India in October. “We aren’t weak in defence, but we are better in attack and we like to attack with a lot of possession,” says coach Orlando Restrepo.
Meanwhile, de Matos claims that he’s close to setting a concrete formation for the Indian team he took charge of in March. More importantly, he’s pleased with the mentality he’s instilled in his team in which they attack and defend as a unit. “Earlier, when we lose the ball they would stay still and wait for the defenders to make tackles. Now the entire team tracks back to defend and then pushes forward when we get the ball,” he says.
There’s still more work the Portuguese coach asserts the team needs before they can be ready for the World Cup. “Tactical, physical, technical,” he tries to sum up.
Still he’s satisfied with the progress he’s made in the four months he’s been in charge of the team, when he took up the post after an alleged coup by the players against former coach Nicolai Adam. “I haven’t had a lot of time, but that cannot be an excuse. We’ve played a lot of friendlies and the team has remained with me throughout,” he says.
India’s opening game – the first of the tournament altogether – comes against the United States. The North American giants have played 15 of the previous 16 editions of the tournament and are a team de Matos believes his side can get the better of.
Ghana, who often field physically strong players, is a greater threat according to de Matos. “They are a team with a strong tradition at this tournament, and with Mali, they’re easily the top two teams from Africa,” he adds.
While the Indian performances will grab the attention, especially in their first appearance at the elite event, the biggest tie of the group stage will take place in Kochi between Spain and Brazil. The three-time champions from South America, drawn in Group D, have had a strong history in the tournament, but the Spaniards have a special motive in the upcoming event. “The biggest challenge for me is that this is the only tournament Spain has never won (across all age groups),” says Spain coach Santiago Denia.
Meanwhile Group F is the closest rated to being the ‘Group of Death.’ Iraq and Mexico qualified for the tournament as champions of Asia and North America respectively, while England and Chile ended up as runners-up in their continental competitions.