It’s astonishing how the narrative has changed in just one week. Till last Thursday, the debate centred on the number of goals India would concede. Scoring a goal looked a distant possibility while nicking a point was an impossible dream. A week on, before their final group game against Ghana, the team is dreaming the impossible. “I spoke to the boys,” coach Luis Norton de Matos says, “and they believe 100 percent they can win the game.”
This, though, will be the toughest challenge for the Indian colts yet. India haven’t played an opponent like this before. During their two-year long preparatory phase, the team travelled to 18 countries and played more than 100 matches, including against the USA and Colombia. But during this period, they have not played Ghana, or any other African opponent.
So the team is not quite sure what to expect on Thursday. “The only thing we know is they are the toughest. They are very physical,” says Jeakson Singh, scorer of India’s goal against Colombia. In the overall context, the USA were skillful but not strong. Colombia were more physical but lacked USA’s finesse. These two teams gave India some leeway to work with. Ghana, however, are the strongest of the four teams in the group as well as the most skillful.
They are also a team wounded. Ghana lost to the USA in their previous game, which leaves them in a must-win situation against India. Considering that goal difference will come into play, Ghana are not masking their intentions. “We will try to score first to silence the home crowd,” Ghana coach Samuel Fabin says.
The Indian team, on the other hand, is wounded, too. Only quite literally. Captain Amarjit Kiyam and central defender Anwar Ali are both nursing injuries. They both had a light training session and are doubtful for Thursday’s match. That could spell doom for India, who are dreaming of getting three points from this and miraculously progressing to the Round of 16.
Without this influential duo, India’s task has only got tougher. Ghana’s two wingers, Sadiq Ibrahim and Emmanuel Toku, have the ability to decide the game on their own. Fullbacks Rashid Al Hassan and Najeeb Yakubu are quick and support the attack efficiently. In the centre, the left-footed Mohammad Iddriss organises their attacks while up front Eric Aiyah is seen as one of the most prolific strikers of the tournament.
For all their attacking prowess, Ghana’s best performer has been their goalkeeper Danlad Ibrahim. He is only 14 and has already been signed by the country’s premier club Asante Kotoko. For India to have any chance to beat him, they will have to hope Ghana continue to remain off colour.
Despite having a squad that boasts of quality players in all positions, they have not clicked so far in the tournament. They have looked disjointed and lacked shape. “I don’t know what is wrong with the team. In the training, they are good but on field it’s not coming along. Hopefully, it’ll be ok tomorrow,” Fabin says.
India, one of the most disciplined sides tactically, will look to take advantage of it, provided they are not physically overpowered. This aspect proved crucial against Colombia as India came second-best in almost all aerial duels even though de Matos fielded an XI which was considerably taller compared to the one against the USA. It’ll be interesting to see if he chooses a similar strategy or goes for players who are smaller in stature but quick on the ball.
Komal Thatal, Nongdamba Naorem and Aniket Jadhav — who have all impressed in bits — are likely to get a look-in while the backline might remain unchanged unless Ali is forced out.
What India have lacked in skills has been covered up with spirit so far. These players know they might not get another chance to play in a World Cup (unless, of course, the AIFF manages to win the right to host Under-20 World Cup). So they want to put up a show one last time.
And De Matos is just stoking their aspirations. “When we sleep tonight, we want to dream that we are in the next round,” he says. “That dream should come true.”