Barely five days after they will play their last Group Stage match, India’s under-17 team is likely to play Qatar. This isn’t crystal ball gazing of their Round of 16 opponent at the World Cup. But as the tournament will shift gears and move into the knockout stages, India will return to doing what they’ve done for the last two years — play practice games.
Before that happens, though, the most-prepared Indian team will be put through a severe test. They have travelled across the world and played more than 100 matches in anticipation of this day. India eventually had to host the World Cup to be a part of it. And this Class of 2000 will become the first-ever Indian football team to play a World Cup — any World Cup — when they take on the USA tonight.
It’s a momentous occasion, nevertheless. On Thursday evening, just when India captain Amarjit Kiyam entered the press-briefing room, the hashtag ‘back the blue’ was trending on Twitter. Bollywood actors, cricketers and football stars were all tweeting their best wishes.
Amidst all this hype, however, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has remained realistic about the team’s abilities. “The excitement has built up. The momentum is good and stadium will be full. Realistically, everybody realizes we are in a tough group. But nobody is looking at performance per se of the Indian national team. The coach (Luis Norton de Matos), however, is saying don’t be surprised if there are upsets,” AIFF president Praful Patel says.
Patel had a wry smile on his face when he finished his last sentence. The parameters for success, in India’s case, are vague. A goal? A draw? A defeat margin of two or less goals? A win, even Patel knows, is taking it a bit too far.
India played the USA at the AIFF Youth Cup in Goa last year. USA won that match 4-0, their superior physique and technique proving too much for India to handle. It could have been more had they capitalised on their chances.
“But this doesn’t matter. When we played India last year, there were 40 people watching. On Friday, I am told there will be 40,000. To play with so many people cheering for you, the adrenaline rush really helps,” USA coach John Hackworth says.
Adrenaline is something India are banking on, as well. The blaring of vuvuzelas and a packed stadium was a crucial factor that earned South Africa the 1-1 draw against much-superior Mexico in the opening match of the 2010 World Cup. If Rahim Ali does a Siphiwe Tshabalala, that’ll perhaps qualify as an ‘upset’.
But he’ll be up against a goalkeeper, CJ Dos Santos, who is with Benfica and a defender (Sergino Dest) who plays for Ajax youth team — and they aren’t even USA’s best players. They have come to Delhi with one of their most talented U-17 squads.
Striker Josh Sargant has already played a World Cup, the Under-20 one in South Korea earlier. His performances there were so good that he is now being chased by several European clubs. Werder Bremen, reportedly, are close to signing him. His teammate Timothy Weah, a striker, is already with PSG youth team.
Even though they have a squad brimming with such talent, USA are not the favourites. That tag belongs to Brazil or Ghana, also in India’s group, and Mexico, who are widely regarded as the underdogs. Spain possess midfielders with most flair while Germany are here with perhaps one of the best strike-force.
USA will be keen to make a statement. A big win against the hosts in their opening match would sound out a warning for the rest. There are up against a team that doesn’t have a player in Europe. These are children of tailors and fishermen who are nowhere on the radar of the foreign clubs. But Hackworth regards India as the ‘hardest-working’ team he has faced in the last two years.
De Matos is hoping his team’s work-ethic, coupled with the execution of tactics, will help them achieve a ‘respectable’ result. Not surprisingly, India will be adopting a defensive mindset and try to hit USA on the counter. “We know we have a small percentage of winning against the US but you never know what will happen in a game of football,” De Matos says. “We will prepare well for this small percentage and try to make these small possibilities count.”
But Patel and the AIFF are not getting drawn into the hype. “As long as they give us spirited performance, that’s more than what the people are looking,” Patel says.
India vs USA: Live on Sony Ten 2 — 20:00 hrs onwards