The first-ever SAFF was held in Nepal between 1st and 10th August with all major nations in the region sending their U16 teams. SAFF remains one of the weakest regions in world football so it’s important that every country makes a concentrated effort of improvement and the first step to this goal is to groom youth teams properly. So this is a welcome step in the right direction.

Pre-Tournament

India’s squad didn’t contain all players from the IMG-Reliance Academy as important figures like Uttam Rai were left out because of fitness-related issues. The team practiced for two months in Goa under the watchful eyes of former India International, Joseph Thomas. The boys played important warm-up games against Salgaocar Juniors, Fr Agnel High School and SESA Goa’s U-19 team.

The final squad which made its trip to Kathmandu is as follows:

Goalkeepers: Avinash Kumar Rao, Agiapal Singh, Supratim Bhattacharya

Defenders: Myron Sezie Mendes, Maibham Jimmy Singh, Aula Kanyeha, Suman Saha, Mohammed Sajid Dhoot , Sarthak Golui, Randhwa Sukhjit Singh, Nabin Rabha

Midfielders: Kamalpreet Singh, Harmanjot Singh, Nitin Jyal, Germanpreet Singh, Khiangte Lalramzauva, Lalrammuana, Raja Rawat, Daniel Lalhlimpuia

Strikers: Vanlalthlamuana, Vanlalduatsanga, Prokash Majumdar, Jagannath Oraon.

Thomas had this to say before his team left – “we have a balanced side and all the boys are good. We have prepared very well for this tournament and will try to put our best forward right from the outset”.

Group Stage

India was clubbed with Pakistan and Maldives in Group A and faced off against Pakistan in the tournament opener. Pakistan started the match on a stronger note and deservedly took the lead through Mansur Khan. Mansur flummoxed the Indian defence by escaping the offside trap and didn’t make any mistake to beat Indian ‘keeper Agiapal Singh on 20th minute. Indian boys looked listless throughout the first half and didn’t come close to drawing level.

In second half, the boys came out with all guns blazing laying siege to an increasingly defensive Pakistan team. The midfielders took control of the play, but the strikers were unable to finish off chances. Daniel was especially impressive with his frequent forays into opponent penalty box but he was also guilty of missing a handful of chances. Captain Mohammad Sajid was also very impressive in defence.

Pakistan dug deep and was also helped by luck in some occasions like Lajong FC Academy player Vanlalthlamuana hitting the post. In the end, India suffered a shock loss in their opening game despite creating enough chances to win the match. Indian coach was critical about Dasrath Stadium’s turf quality. He mentioned that the boys had practiced on an artificial turf in Goa and so they struggled to adapt.

Pakistan defeated Maldives 6-0 in the second match of Group A which meant that India would reach semi-final even if the boys drew the last group match against Maldives.

In the do-or-die match against Maldives, India started to attack as soon as the whistle was blown. After dominating the possession for first 30 minutes the boys finally broke the deadlock through Daniel, who exploited a mistake from opponent goalkeeper to roll the ball into an empty net. Six minutes later Raja Rawat made it 2-0 with a powerful drive from outside the penalty box. Deep into injury time, Laldanta Sanga dribbled past two Maldives defenders before finishing calmly as India went into lemon break 3-0 up.

Things didn’t change in second half as India continued to batter a hapless Maldives side. Laldanta grabbed his second goal of the match on 54th minute from as assist by Rawat. Prokash Majumdar joined the party on 63rd minute, taking advantage of a defensive lapse to make it 5-0 to Indian colts. Before the 5th goal Lalrammuana was sent off for dissent after back-to-back yellow cards. India continued to press for more goals, which allowed Maldives to go on counter-attacks. However, Indian ‘keeper Agiapal was always alert and kept Maldives strikers at bay. Rawat, who was especially impressive in this match, could have been sent off also but luckily escaped a second yellow. India’s masterclass performance in this match saw them romp to the last four after a 5-0 final scoreline.

India’s opponent in semi-final will be known after result of Sri Lanka-Nepal match in Group B. Bangladesh has already reached the semis from that group.