Gurjant Singh would have lived the scenario several times in his dreams: a World Cup final, the crowd cheering him, and he beating the goalkeeper with a fierce hit. But even in his dreams, the 21-year-old wouldn’t have executed it with such precision. Varun Kumar, the scorer of India’s first goal in the junior World Cup, spotted an idle Gurjant near the Belgian ‘D’. You could have forgiven the European side for assuming it was harmless to leave Gurjant unmarked.
It isn’t India’s style, after all, to play long, aerial balls. But this Indian style has ditched several old ways. And the Belgians would realize that the hard way. That Varun dared to play the lobbed ball – that travelled half the length of the field from right to left – was a surprise in itself. Belgian defenders were caught off guard and they failed to control it. Gurjant was the first to reach. He controlled the wobbling ball with the two deft touches and took it away from the defenders.
To close Gurjant’s angle, Belgium goalkeeper Loic van Doren charged towards him. Gurjant looked up, saw the tournament’s best goalkeeper running towards him, then spotted faintest of gaps between him at the post, and from an acute angle, unleashed a reverse hit that flew past Van Doren.
It was one of the finest goals of the tournament, if not the finest. And it couldn’t have come at a more crucial moment. That goal, in the 8th minute, changed how the final would be played. Belgium are a side who like to play patient, structured hockey. They prefer scoring first and generally rely on their technically strong defenders to see out the rest of the game. That’s how they defeated India in the Olympics quarterfinals and their juniors followed the template in the World Cup.
But India coach Harendra Singh had a plan, which his team executed to perfection. On the eve of the final, Harendra said the most effective way to unlock the Belgian defence was to play diagonal passes into their ‘D’. Most of India’s attacks came from the flanks, and combined with the raw pace of the midfielders and forwards, Belgium looked visibly uncomfortable.
The strategy also yielded India’s both goals. While the first was scored from a diagonal lobbed pass from right to the left, the second came in the 22nd minute from India’s movement from left to right. Nilakanta Sharma picked up a loose ball on the right, near the 25-yard line, and played it towards Simranjeet Singh on top of the ‘D’. Simranjeet took one touch to step away from the defender, and then beat Van Doren with a powerful shot. Two reverse flicks, two goals.
If the crowd hadn’t already deflated Belgium’s confidence, the second goal surely did. Chaos is how Belgium coach Jeroen Baart chose described the opening half hour. “The players couldn’t handle the chaos of the Indian team, and the crowd,” he confessed.
Inside 30 minutes, India were up by two goals. Such was the confidence among the Indian players that the ball didn’t touch a Belgian stick even once for almost two minutes towards the end of the first half. Roelant Oltmans, here as the manager of the junior team, had demanded a perfect performance. The players had delivered just that. But their job was only half done.
Harendra knows the consequence of being over-ambitious too well. In the semifinal of the 2005 junior World Cup, India – again coached by Harendra – were leading Australia 2-0 in the semifinals. A second consecutive final was in the sight but the coach and his players got greedy, trying to go for a higher margin. In doing so, they not just conceded their two-goal advantage but went on to lose 3-2.
A repeat of 2005 would have been disastrous, especially with the crowd already celebrating as if India had won the title. But the Indian players did not lose their focus. Dipsan Tirkey, the youngest member of the Indian team, has been rock-solid as a deep defender and he only added to his reputation by sniffing out any danger posed by the Belgian attackers.
Chances for Belgium were few, and they weren’t really threatening – largely because India dominated the midfield play. Every time India lost possession, they were quick to regain it by putting pressure on Belgians in their own half.
India lost concentration only in the final minute, when they conceded a penalty corner. By the time Belgium could take it, the hooter had sounded. India were champions but as the rules prescribe, the corner had to be taken.
When Fabrice van Bockrijck drag-flicked it, the Indian players did not even bother to rush to stop it. They ran, but towards their dugout to celebrate. The ball flew past goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya. But no one cared. India became the first host country to win a junior World Cup.
In a city that has produced a golden generation of players in 1970s and 80s, another golden generation of players has emerged.