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As they waited in the tunnel before stepping on the field, one of the match day mascots clutched Gideon Mensah’s hand, took a step back and craned his neck. He barely came to Mensah’s waist and stared in awe at the Ghanaian defender’s six foot-plus frame.
In the 90 minutes that followed, India behaved much like the kid in the tunnel. For them, however, it wasn’t only about the physique. They were amazed at their skills, technique and pace. So beautiful and artsy were Ghana going forward it appeared at times even the Indians just stood there, admiring them. “We knew we were going to suffer a lot,” coach Luis Norton de Matos conceded after the 4-0 defeat.
Suffer they did. This was never really a contest; a mismatch in every department. Ghana were eager to find that opening goal. India defended desperately. They showed some spunk in the first 15 minutes, playing long balls in the hole behind Ghana’s advancing wing-backs. However, the lack of quality in the final third would once again cost India and it only made them vulnerable to Ghana’s counterattacks.
Mensah and Bismark Owusu, the two centre-backs, were so authoritative in defence that they did not even allow India to take one shot at goal. Instead, they would use their giant frames to throw the Indians off and play it down the wings, where Sadiq Ibrahim and Edmund Arko-Mensah looked determined to set distance-running records. Up front, Eric Aiyah looked equally menacing.
You can fault this Indian team on many counts. Lack of fighting spirit wouldn’t be one of them. Despite their tiny frames and limited ability with the ball, they threw bodies in line, closing down the Ghanaians and forcing errors out of them. Deep down, the players knew this could be the last time they played a World Cup match. And they gave their everything.
Somehow, the score remained goalless after 30 minutes and you could sense Ghana getting a bit restless.
From the bench, their coach Samuel Fabin barked out instructions at his players. Fabin had joked about getting citizenship in India if the team lost tonight (“they would kill me back home,” he had said). But this wasn’t just about getting three points. Ghana needed a big win, which the resilient Indians were denying them.
Threshold of suffering
But they had reached their threshold of ‘suffering’. Ibrahim, the pacy winger, grew up playing on dusty fields of a charity institute in Accra. On Thursday, he was enjoying playing on the lush green surface of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. He ran like a wind, creating several dangerous moves. None more deadly, though, than the one in the 43rd minute. He ran behind the right-back and tested Dheeraj Moirangthem with a powerful shot. The custodian palmed it away but the rebound came straight towards Aiyah, who tapped it in.
In the previous two matches against Colombia and USA, the goal woke India up. Against Ghana, it only opened the floodgates. India were exhausted. They were tired of seeing Ghana run; tired of chasing lost causes. And when you are tired, your brain stops working. India, who have taken pride in maintaining a rigid defensive structure, had a formation so loose it resembled algae.
Ghana simply had to pick their pass and run into empty space. They were wasteful initially but after the restart, there was a sense of purpose. Aiyah, the highest goal-scorer in the African U-17 Championships, added another goal to his tally in the 52nd minute while second-half substitutes Richard Danso (86’) and Emmanuel Toku (87’) capitalised on defensive errors to complete the rout.
Dheeraj punched the ground in frustration. There was only so much he could do. The tournament stats (9 conceded, 1 scored) will never do justice to his performances in the three matches, although he wasn’t near his best. In fact, barring Anwar Ali, no other Indian player had a decent outing. “I don’t know why but the Indians did not show up for the match today,” Fabin said. “We could have scored more.”
Fabin wasn’t complaining. His boys got the job done. The four goals ensured Ghana topped Group A. For the hosts, the campaign that began with such high promise has ended in ignominy of finishing at the bottom. “But I am proud of these boys. They have shown they can play football,” de Matos said.
The 52,614 in the stadium seemed to agree with him. They stayed for long after the match, cheering the team on. At some point, a section of the crowd began to sing Hum honge kaamyab ek din (We shall overcome someday). Someday. Just not today.