February 2018
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Eye-opener: India surprise with a display of skill and gumption, go down 0-3 vs USA
(New Delhi, Oct 06, 2017):A teary-eyed Jitendra Singh begged the referee to reverse his decision. The 16-year-old threw a tantrum and pleaded with folded hands. On a memorable night, in front of 46,000 fans, he did not want to be remembered as a villain. But Bolivian referee Gery Vargas was strict as a headmaster.

Jitendra was convinced he had made a perfect tackle to stop USA’s Josh Sargant from entering the Indian box from the right flank. But the centre-back stretched his right leg out and the Werder Bremen target used his experience to make the most of the slight contact. He tumbled to the ground. Vargas had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.

It took the Indian players, and crowd, a moment to realise a penalty was awarded against them. Sargant, fresh from the under-20 World Cup in South Korea, slotted it past Indian goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem. That goal in the 30th minute, one thought, would open the floodgates. But it wasn’t to be.

India lost their under-17 World Cup opener 3-0. But in their first big match, against a world-class team and in front of an expectant crowd, the Indian teenagers gave a respectable account of themselves.

Gulf in class

The gulf in class was apparent — tactical, technical and physical. At first glance, it looked like India were playing a tournament in another age-group. At nearly every position, the USA players were almost 10cm taller than their Indian counterparts.

They used it well to their advantage. Whenever an Indian player made a run forward, the US player would simply shoulder-push them and shield the ball. But that did not deter the Indians. They jumped higher, ran quicker and tackled harder.

During corner kicks, three American players would stand right in front of Dheeraj. But he would bravely jump over them, punch it out with authority. Dheeraj was decisive in his movements and positioning, something that impressed USA coach John Hackworth, who called him ‘exceptional’.

Rahul KP came only till Timothy Weah’s chest. But he made a nuisance of himself, jostling for every ball and tackling with perfect precision to frustrate the PSG starlet. On the flanks, Komal Thatal — the smallest player on the field — dazzled on the left wing. He took on midfielders and defenders at least a foot bigger than him, weaving past them and launching most of India’s attacks.

India’s plan to defend deep and hit USA on the counter worked perfectly for the first half hour, forcing Hackworth to change his strategy midway through. Last year, at the AIFF Youth Cup, USA played long, diagonal balls over India’s right back and scored from the subsequent crosses.

On Friday, they tried to do the same for the first 20 minutes. But the Indian defence held its line, plugging that hole which USA took advantage of a year ago in Goa. Buoyed by the goalless scoreline, India got the confidence to venture out of their own half.

But poor first touches and anticipation meant they could never really conjure a dangerous move. Sargant’s goal after 30 minutes took some sting out of the game but India soon regained their composure.

On the touchline, India’s Portuguese coach Luis Norton de Matos resembled a fandango performer as he barked out instructions to his players. To ensure they heard him amidst all the noise, he gestured with his hands, squatted and moved around the dugout to assert his points.

On the field, the players responded. They did not lose the shape even for a minute. India’s two defence lines operated with precision, leaving very little space for the US to work with in the midfield. Under pressure, they did not simply thwack the ball upfield. Instead, they patiently tried to pass it along the ground and steer themselves out of trouble.

In doing so, they were caught in the web themselves as their first touches were disappointing. But the defenders threw their bodies in front of everything to ensure the scoreline remained 1-0 at half time.

Costly little mistakes

The hallmark of good teams at this level is that they punish you at the slightest of mistakes. And India learnt that the hard way. They failed to clear a corner in the 51st minute and Chris Durkin doubled the lead. The atmosphere in the stadium went flat. But this bunch of millennials would still not give up.

Four minutes later, Rahul played a long ball that split open the US defence. It bounced over Durkin and Komal snuck behind his taller counterpart. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, he chipped the ball from the edge of the box. However, it sailed over the crossbar. Just like that, the stadium returned to life, albeit momentarily.

After that lapse, US took control of the game and moved the ball confidently among themselves. India did not see much of it but whenever they did, they were not shy of taking a shot. The closest they came to scoring was roughly 6 minutes before full time.

Komal, once again, was at the heart of the move. His low corner made its way towards Anwar Ali but the defender’s shot hit the crossbar. Indian players stood there, heads in their hands. But by the time they could fall back to defend, USA were already in their box. Their counterattack ended with Andrew Carleton scoring the third.

“If that goal would’ve gone in, we would have been 2-1. Instead, it became 3-0,” de Matos rued. That goal was a brutal initiation to World Cup football. At full time on their debut night, though, there were no tears. The Indian players left the field with their heads held high.

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