Just over a month ago, the All India Football Association (AIFF) employed the services of Thomas Dennerby to coach the women’s U-17 team. The Swedish coach, who in 2011 led his national team to a third-place finish at the Women’s World Cup, has tried to spend as much time as he could to get to know his new charges that will become the first women’s team from India to play at a football World Cup, at any level, when they enter the elite competition next year. The 60-year-old is in Mumbai, with his squad, ready to compete against an U-17 team from Sweden and Thailand, in a tri-nation tournament.
And on Friday, Dennerby, along with the rest of India, will watch its junior women’s team compete against quality opposition for the first time. “It’s a little bit hard to say (what I make of the team) now because this is our first tournament since I arrived,” he says. “But hopefully we will have some good results. I promise everyone we have prepared well for a couple of weeks. The girls worked very hard in training. There are a lot of things that are going good for the moment and hopefully we can see that in the results in the tournament.”
Ever since FIFA announced India as hosts for the 2020 women’s U17 World Cup back in March this year, the AIFF had begun the progress of putting together a team. On the way, under the guidance of former Indian footballer Alex Ambrose, the team played four matches against clubs and the national team in Hong Kong, winning all four matches, and then continued that hot streak by winning all four matches at the SAFF Championship in October – beating Bangladesh on penalties in the final. But the quality of opposition they will face over the next week is nothing like they have faced before.
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In Sweden, the Indians come up against a European team with a rich history in women’s football, and in Thailand they have a team that has competed at the U16 AFC Women’s Championships in September against the biggest teams in Asia.
Yet Dennerby remains optimistic about the set of 22 players he has with him in Mumbai. “They are really working hard. No complaints at all, even when we drill them really hard,” Dennerby says. “They also adapt to what we are trying to learn more and more, every day we work. We have like 350 sessions to go before the World Cup starts. So we say to them, ‘girl, don’t rush, take it easy. If we learn one new thing every session until November next year, we will learn 350 new things, so don’t rush’.”
There’s just 11 months left before India puts forward its second ever team to compete at a football World Cup – after the men’s U17 team qualified for the 2017 edition as hosts – and Dennerby hopes to get to know much more about his team over the next week. Learn the strengths and weaknesses, and of course, his players as people.
“It’s a new culture and I also have to understand about their feelings sometimes, and what they are trying to tell me,” he says.
So far, he’s been doing all the talking and teaching. On Friday, he’ll see if anyone was listening.
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