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A meal alone in a deserted dining hall was not quite how Suresh Wangjam imagined his biggest night would end. Before he could even enter the dressing room after full time, the 16-year-old was whisked away to the dope control room after he was randomly picked by the testing officers.
By the time he submitted his urine sample and returned to the hotel, his teammates had finished dinner and returned to their rooms. Earlier in the evening, Suresh was orchestrating India’s midfield play in front of 46,000 loud fans. And now, here he was, eating boiled chicken with just the kitchen staff for company.
Suresh wasn’t complaining, though. It gave him a chance to reflect on an evening that had generated overwhelming emotions. It was also an evening when they were ruthlessly initiated to world-level football by the USA. “When we play a friendly match against a weak team, they don’t punish us when we make a mistake. But see yesterday, we don’t score a goal, they counter us and we conceded,” Suresh says.
He was referring to the incident in the 84th minute, when defender Anwar Ali hit the crossbar and USA caught the Indian defence napping to score from a brilliant counterattack. It ended Indian resilience and completed a comfortable 3-0 win for the US.
But on a night which saw winger Komal Thatal and goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh announce themselves as the potential stars to watch out for, there were other foot-soldiers who worked tirelessly and made US work a little bit harder to find their goals.
Like Suresh in the midfield. He is one of the few players who has been with the team continuously since it was formed in 2014. The holding midfielder’s composure and ball distribution has impressed India coach Luis Norton de Matos as well as his predecessor Nicolai Adam. On Friday, Suresh also made some nice runs and linked up well with Thatal and striker Aniket Jadhav. “But against Colombia, I need to do better and provide our strikers more chances to score,” he says.
In the central midfield, alongside Suresh, Amarjit Singh proved his leadership qualities and showed why rest of his teammates chose him as the captain. As if the responsibility to play the country’s first World Cup match in front of a crowd that included the Prime Minister was not enough, Amarjit also ensured the defence and midfield maintained its shape.
He anchored the team, communicating with every player around him while also chasing loose balls and tackling the American forwards. Later, at the team hotel, he would talk individually to players and cheer them up after the disappointing result.
In the defence, Rahul KP played a flawless game. His parents wanted him to get a government job. But the work-rate he displayed would put a babu to shame. Rahul likes playing as a centre-forward or in the midfield. But in the absence of Boris Singh – India’s first-choice right back – Rahul filled his boots with consummate ease.
He had a tough task of marking striker Timothy Weah, who was a little more than a head taller than Rahul. Still, the Kerala teenager closely marked the PSG starlet and smothered him for space, forcing USA to chuck their original plan of attacking India from that flank and take a central route instead.
That, too, wasn’t as easy as USA would have imagined. Anwar Ali, the tallest Indian outfield player, was also the most effective. His story is full of contradictions. He comes from a family of herders and used to graze cattle himself. But he is a vegetarian. His first love was cricket, a left-arm bowler and right-handed bat. However, the 17-year-old ended up as a footballer. And although he prefers being a striker, Ali now plays as a centre-back.
There were, however, no inconsistencies in his performance. Ali was released from the AIFF Academy in 2015 for being ‘too short’ for a defender. At 5’4”, the then 15-year-old surely wasn’t the tallest and even though he was among the few two-footed players in the team, it wasn’t enough to save his place.
By April 2017, he had grown to a height of 6’1” and his aerial abilities had improved considerably. That month, his academy, Minerva Punjab, defeated the India under-17 1-0 in a practice match. Ali’s rock-solid performance impressed de Matos, who recalled him to the national team. On Friday, USA began the match with four forwards and Ali was surefooted with his tackles while closely marking the forwards. He also proved his attacking instincts late into the match and came the closest to scoring India’s first World Cup goal.
Komal Thatal’s corner made its way towards Ali inside the American box. The Punjab boy took one touch to control the ball before unleashing a powerful right-footer. The shot hit the crossbar and USA scored from the ensuing counterattack. What could have been 2-1 was now 3-0. “That was our big lesson,” Suresh says. “At this level, teams will punish you.”