The second most populous nation in the World, India is trying hard to establish themselves in the world of football. Once upon a time, Indian was considered as an Asian giant, but they have been sleeping for a long time now. This time around slowly the giant is trying to wake up! Their game style has changed to a more suitable possession-based approach and they are trying to implement it at the grass-roots level. If the AFC U-22 qualifier was a refreshing sight with the Indian teenagers matching their Asian counterparts, the Nehru cup-2012 victory showed the implementation of it in the senior level and it was indeed a wonderful sight.
The Indian government and AIFF are trying to secure the 2017 U-17 world cup hosting rights. The youngest World cup football edition has been the unearthing event of football sensations and it would be a great sight for the Indians if they could catch a glimpse of the next Ronaldos and Messis live. Indeed it is so powerful that it can plant the football seeds to the millions in India who forgot about the beautiful game.
Indian boys tried to get a first look into the U-17 world cup scene via the AFC under-16 championship. Indian U-16 team was the lowest ranked nation in Group-D which consists of superior China, Syria and Uzbekistan along with India. Indians tried to make it to the youngest world cup for the first time in merit before securing the direct entry and the boys were eager to show the nation that they can match their counterparts. The 9-0 drubbing they suffered from 2010 Runner-up Uzbekistan in the previous round of qualifiers didn’t give much hope.
In the opening fixture against the talented Uzbekistanis, the Indian boys fought tooth and nail till the final whistle before losing by a 3-2 margin. The boys came back twice to equalize after going a goal down, and in the last 10 minutes they were raising all sorts of questions to the Uzbekistani defence. Even though young sensation Uttam Rai stole the limelight with a brace, Goalkeeper Supratim Bhattacharjee and the back-four put up a spirited display earlier and this laid the foundation for a superb fight till the end. The never-say-die attitude was visible in Colm Joseph Toal’s boys throughout; they fought bravely till the final whistle against all the odds and were unlucky to return from the fields without any points.
Indian boys took a more cautious approach in their second group game against the physically stronger Syrians. Similar to the senior pros strategy in 2009 SAAF Cup, the boys also relied on the long ball and counter attack strategy against the Syrians. India didn’t deserve a goal in this match even though the menacing prodigy Uttam Rai single-handedly tried to break the opposition defence. Indian defence and goalkeeper stood bravely against the Syrians throughout the 90 minutes after their inspirational performance in the first match and the teams shared the spoils with a goalless draw.
India had a realistic chance of progressing from this group with a win against China in their final match. It also required a win for the Uzbekistanis against the Syrians to make the equation simpler. India started brightly against the Chinese in the all-important final match in a group which was open for all to progress and likewise the game become open at both ends. India took the initial lead while China hit back and went with a deserved lead at the half time break. It looked like China will progress from the group with Syria as Uzbekistan went down against Syria making sure of India’s exit. In injury time, India regained parity with a penalty, this paved the way for China to join India at the exit door while Uzbekistan got another chance.
India, the lowest ranked team in the group finished rock bottom as predicted by many pundits. But the youngsters put up some admirable displays which almost gave them three draws in as many outings. They came-back from the brink of defeat to earn a draw in their final match after failing to secure it at their first attempt in the opening fixture. 2 points in an evenly contested group is not a bad return for the lowest ranked nation but finishing last is! Still Indian boys can travel back with their heads held high with some outstanding performances under their belt.
Uttam Rai has been labelled as the next big thing in Indian football; the young Sikkimese star didn’t raise many eyebrows and is all set for the big stage after marking his arrival in the U-16 stage. Uttam Rai scored two goals against the mighty Uzbekistan while the Syrians found him too hot to handle and he made himself unplayable against the Chinese as well. Rai’s influence was predicted earlier while goalkeeper Supratim Bhattacharjee was one of the unsung heroes from this tournament along with his back four. Even though Indians were disappointed with the exit, Uttam Rai, Supratim Bhattacharjee and co. has given them some real hope to look into the future.