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India's U17 World Cup journey

Saturday 14th October 2017
One of football sleeping giants, India woke to discover it was hosting FIFA's U17 World Cup. In a difficult group, the Blue Colts proved not to be sleepers.

Tied in a very tough group alongside USA, Ghana and Columbia, expectations for this young Indian side were very low. Results reflected its status as lowest ranked team in the tournament.

India 0-3 USA

India kicked off their World Cup campaign against the USA. It was arguably the biggest match in the country's footballing history. The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium hosted 45,000 supporters hoping for an historic moment. It was all good until the 25th minute, when Jitendra tripped the USA captain, Josh Sargent, in the penalty box.

The Americans sought to put the game to bed with another strike seven minutes into the second half but the courageous colts refused to give up. Desire and commitment to get back in the game were there. Poor distribution and finishing aided the US efforts, however.
The closest India came to scoring was in the final minutes. Cruelly, they conceded a third from a counterattack immediately after hitting the woodwork. Nonetheless, Komal Thatal, Aniket Jadhav, and Dheeraj Moirangthem all impressed.

India 1-2 Columbia

India's second game came against Columbia, a much more physical side. India boss Luis Norton de Matos rotated his side, choosing a lineup which could neutralize Columbia's threats. For a time, it worked.

The Colts looked more confident straight from the kickoff. The first half went back and forth, with both teams looking to score.

Columbia broke the deadlock through Juan Penalosa. Like the USA game, though, India upped their performance after conceding. Attack after attack led to a well-deserved goal. Jeakson Thounaojam made history. He scored India's first ever FIFA World Cup goal.
Once again, nerves got the better of the players. Penalosa struck again. Columbia was back in the lead a minute after conceding. It was heartbreak for over a billion people. Still, the performance was an improvement over the USA game. Centre-backs Anwar Ali, Namit Deshpande, and goalkeeper Dheeraj were India's best performers.

India 0-4 Ghana

After two losses, India were on the brink of exit. Worse, they faced their toughest challenge: Ghana. The hosts tried to keep up with the speedy Black Stars but simply couldn't match Ghana. The Africans were superior in every aspect.

Despite the futility, the Blues performed to the best of their abilities. Indian legend Baichung Bhutia described their first-half performance as India's best performance in the tournament.

Be that as it may, the Ghanaians outclassed India. Eric Ayiah, the Ghana skipper, opened the scoring in the first half. Then he doubled his country's lead before Danso and Toku put one apiece past a tiring defence. India's players looked physically and mentally drained. It was their third match against top quality opposition in a week. Boris Singh and Dheeraj were India's best players.
After the match, the players were shattered. They had given their all with no results to show. Even the Portuguese coach appeared in despair. A whole nation wept but appreciated the teenagers' valiant efforts.

Dheeraj Moirangthem - The Saviour

Who would think a budding badminton player too shy of crowds would be the best performer for his country in a FIFA World Cup? Before nearly 50,000 people per match?

India's best player of the tournament was their number 1. Dheeraj hardly put a foot wrong. He has vast potential and could very well be India's number 1 in the coming years. The Manipuri lad has everything in his arsenal - tons of goalkeeping abilities, commitment, leadership, and desire. His reflexes, reactions, decision making, positioning and all looked of top quality. Nor did he allow his height to affect his game. He was very quick in coming off his line and made himself big in one-on-one's.
Although he didn't keep a single clean sheet and conceded 9 goals in 3 matches, he was nothing short of phenomenal. India would've conceded a lot more if it wasn't for Dheeraj. Even his distribution was good. His long throws were accurate; he released the ball quickly for counterattacks; and often found targets from the goal kicks, too. He wasn't rated the find of the tournament  for nothing.

India didn't lose, she learned

With such an inexperienced team, there were some negatives. Lacking big match experience hurt the players. Poor distribution was another problem. The Blue Colts were set up well defensively. They just didn't know what to do with the ball after winning it. Passing options weren't available. When they were, the player on the ball took too long to pick it out. Even the finishing was sub-par. The Indians rarely created chances but were far from clinical when they did.

All that being said, I couldn't be prouder of the boys who represented my country in such a valiant way. Although India lost all the matches that they played, they actually won. The U17 football team attracted 45,000+ audiences in each of their matches, in a cricket-dominated country. In the bigger picture, this tournament could be a turning point in the history of Indian football.
For a coach who had only seven months to prepare his team, de Matos certainly did a good job. India faced opposition who had better infrastructure and more experienced players but still looked as though they belonged. this was nothing but a learning experience.

Much work must be done for India to be able to qualify and compete in FIFA World Cups at any level. Now that one generation has had a taste, who knows? Rome wasn't built in a day. Give New Delhi some time.
Vedansh Nathani

Manchester United fan from India. Follows almost all sports - football and pro-wrestling in particular. Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are some of his favourites.

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