The approach to the Andheri Sports Complex, on a football match day, is quieter than usual. Just outside the stadium, there’s a group of workers attempting to dismantle what’s left of the decorations from a wedding reception held the previous day – plastic lions, flamingos, flowers et al.
A stone’s throw away, some of the gates of the football stadium are locked, but an announcer asks approximate 200 people inside – the Blue Pilgrims (the Barmy Army of the Indian national football teams) – to rise for the national anthem.
The venue was the same that has hosted noisy Indian Super League matches in the confines of the 8,000-seater stadium. And it’s here that the Indian U-17 women’s team, which will compete at the age-group FIFA World Cup next year, were to play their first match at home ever since India was announced as hosts for the elite event in November 2020.
Since March, the junior women’s team has played in four matches in Hong Kong and just as many in at the SAFF Championships in October.
But on Friday, against Sweden in the opening match of tri-nation U17 football tournament, the Indians were coming up against top quality opposition.
Naturally, the nerves were palpable, and it came to a head in as early as the third minute when Swedish forward Monica Jusu Bah was brought down in the box and Matilda Liv Vinberg slotted home the resultant penalty.
This was in the first few minutes of the group of Indian teens playing in the big league – a glimpse of what might come at the World Cup next year. And though the eventual scoreline read 3-0 (with goals also coming in the 25th and 91st minute) to the visitors, not all remained bleak from the Indian lineup.
The most impressive from the Indian roster was striker S Lynda Kom. Not the quickest on the dash, but Kom showed her penchant for trickery that threw off the taller and physically stronger Swedish defenders on many occasions. The first came in the 11th minute, when she nicked the ball off a centre-back at the halfline and marched forward, slaloming between the tackles that came, finally pulling the ball onto her right foot and shooting from outside the box, but straight at the goalkeeper.
In the 21st, she controlled a lob from defence neatly, threw in a few step-overs to make space for herself and then hit a long-range left-footer, again saved by Elin Svahn in the Swedish goal.
India’s best chance though came in the 12th minute. Sunita Munda on the right flank crossed perfectly into the box, Sumati Kumari, just outside the six-yard box got into position unmarked, but inexplicably failed to connect with the ball.
There weren’t many occasions when India got into the box, but when they did, they were dangerous. There were many time Sweden marched into the Indian penalty area, and the score could have easily been much more than the three they did manage, but for the discipline in defence.
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Skipper Hemam Shilky Devi was impressive at the back, and her positional sense and reading demanded greater effort from the Swedish forwards.
“(India) was good close to their own penalty box. In Monica, we have one of the fastest players in Sweden and she’s also very strong. But the defenders read her play,” says Sweden coach Par Lagerstrom after the match.
“They had good speed and could read (Bah’s) game very well. India also was dangerous with the few chances they had. But it’s just that they need to sort out what the two boxes.” No doubt, while the defensive work rate shone, and with the pace of Munda and Sumati up front along with the trickery and flair of Kom, there was no great presence in midfield. It’s a gap that the Indian coach Thomas Dennerby also acknowledged.
“The build-up from the defending line was okay, but we needed to put some more pace on the ball in the build-up play,” Dennerby says. “There were too many square passes and we gave the ball away too easily. We need to work harder on the build-up in midfield.”
But these are the things that Dennerby wanted his players to go through. A match against top opposition was what was needed to bring into perspective what is working well and what isn’t for the team that will become only the second from the country to feature at a FIFA World Cup next year.
Dennerby was satisfied with the first glimpse of what his players can do against quality opposition. And now that the process has started, this set of teenagers will soon become household names.