Earlier this year before the pandemic, when the Indian women’s probables for the FIFA U-17 World Cup travelled to Turkey for friendlies against Romania, Naorem Priyangka Devi returned home with a dress for her mother Pombi Devi. With her team set to play in the (now-cancelled) World Cup this November, she had hoped her mother could wear the dress to one of India’s matches cheering for her. Pombi works as a tailor supporting a family of six, and this was to be the moment she could be in the stands and soak in the warm glowing spotlight that comes with being a proud parent of an India player.
With FIFA deciding to cancel the U-17 World Cup, Devi is one of 27 out of 35 probables, who will now miss out on being from a select group of nations at a football World Cup, albeit by being hosts. For one, this batch will not make the 2022 edition with age ineligibility (ruling out those born in 2003 and 2004). At any rate, India hardly has the pedigree or system currently to qualify for another junior World Cup unless they host one.
“The love for football kept me going all these years. My father does not work and my mother stitches clothes in the village earning Rs 250-350 daily. To see them watching me play in the Indian jersey in the World Cup would have been the reward for my mother. And that has been the biggest disappointment for me individually apart from missing the chance to play in the World Cup in front of home crowds,” shares Priyangka.
Her fate is similar to eight players from Haryana and seven from Manipur and Jharkhand.
Haryana youngster Anshika was one of six goal-keepers in the final probables, also India’s keeper when they won silver at U16 Asian Cup in 2016. Hailing from Bhambhewa village in Jind district, the first-choice custodian in friendlies against Romania, was initially keen on wrestling but chose football as she preferred a team game. The lanky keeper had been training under Nigerian coach Precious Dede, a 4-tie Cupper and thrice Olympian, who was sharpening her one on one situations, air-ball collection and sideways air dives. “As a goal-keeper, it would’ve been a special feeling to play in a world cup. We saw the incredible atmosphere during the men’s U-17 World Cup so a similar setting would’ve been very nice,” shared Anshika, who idolises Indian men’s goal-keeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Coach Anil Kumar, who has been training Anshika since her childhood, could sense the disappointment in his trainee and it took 2-3 days for the youngster to forget about the disappointment. “I told her it wasn’t happening only to her but to the whole team and it’s nobody’s fault. I also told her that there have been players who have done well at the junior level but not so well at seniors. Our target is the senior team and to become one of the best goalkeepers,” shares Kumar.
One of the stars of India’s U-17 team against Romania was B Mariyammal from Sankari near Salem in Tamil Nadu, who started playing football on the insistence of her brother.
“I was interested in athletics but my brother played for the village school and asked me to join so we could get some extra footballs for training. Apart from managing our small farm, my parents work in a garment factory in Salem. When I first went to Bhutan for the SAFF Cup, my parents didn’t even know about a passport. But they told me whatever I do, they will always pray for me,” shared Mariyyamal.
“Bohot disappointing tha. I remember when I played for the Indian team earlier, my father would save the clippings from newspaper and even though they have no idea about football, they proudly showed them to whoever visited us. My parents have not watched me play ever. They would have come to see us play in the World Cup at one of the venues and that would’ve been the biggest memory for them. I have promised them that every one of us will give our best in the Asia qualifiers next year and get to 2022 U-20 World Cup in Costa Rica so they can watch us on television. This thought keeps me motivated,” shared Mariyammal.
Daughter of a small sweet and snacks shop owner in Varanasi, Jyoti Kumari, whose three sisters too play football, shifted base to Cuttack where she was selected in the SAI trials. The defender has been attending online sessions by coach Thomas Dennerby, who guided Sweden women’s team to a third-place finish in FIFA World Cup in 2011. Dennerby believed that improving everyday could keep away the disappointment of missing the direct chance to play in a world cup. “We were working on developing passing-heavy style of play in defense instead of clearing the ball straightaway. It helped us understand that we need to keep improving every day,” says Jyoti.
But the probables were most stung by the disappointment of not being able to play in front of home crowds. “While playing against any international team at any stadium is motivating, playing in front of home crowd and big stadiums in a World Cup cannot be matched by any other experience,” said Priyangka, who idolises Bem Bem Devi and had guided India to a 1-0 win with her goal in the second friendly against Romania.
It was the men’s U-17 World Cup of 2017 that saw Amarjit Singh Kiyam (Jamshedpur FC), Aniket Jadhav (Jamshedpur FC), Dheeraj Singh (ATK Mohun Bagan), Suresh Wangjam (Bangalore FC) and the first Indian to score a FIFA World Cup goal Jeakson Singh (Kerela Blasters), make regular ISL appearances before their 20th birthday. For the women, who have no big league to turn to, the one chance of a brush with top-tier fame, also vamoozed away.