It’s never easy for any side to play and win in front of a hostile crowd. For a bunch of 14-15 year olds, even playing in front of a partisan crowd may be a little too scary. On Tuesday, however, Goutam Ghosh’s boys, representing the Indian U-16 side, displayed a level of maturity unseen in kids of such age, to beat the Nepal U-16 team at its own den, and lift the U-16 SAFF Cup for the first time. With around 20,000 Nepali fans cheering on their boys, the Indian U-16 team, all AIFF Regional Academy boys, and of ages 15 or below, went on to defeat their neighbours by a solitary goal, with defender Jerry Lalrinzuala scoring an absolute screamer in the early part of the first half. The Nepali youngsters, despite several assaults at the Indian goal, failed to get past the 13 year-old Indian custodian, Dheeraj Moirangthem, who managed save after save to lead India to a hard-fought victory.
It was heavily raining in Kathmandu as both the sides got ready to square off at the Dashrath Stadium. With a muddy ground, both teams faced difficulties in playing their normal game. The Indian colts started the brighter of the two sides, with midfielder Anirudh Thapa coming close to giving India the lead in the 14th minute. Four minutes later, birthday boy Jerry Lalrinzuala unleashed an unstoppable shot from around 30 yards out that made its way straight into the top left corner of the goal. With an early lead, the Indian side hushed the vocal Nepalese fans into silence. It didn’t take long for the talented Nepal side to get into the game though, with numerous attacks on the Indian goal. Skipper Hemant led many incursions into the Indian box, although an alert Indian defence and a brilliant Dheeraj Moirangthem made sure the score didn’t change. With only goalkeeper Dheeraj to beat, Nepal striker Shiva Subedi put wide a good chance to equalize for Nepal at the half hour mark, while strike-partner Sujan Rai was twice denied by the Indian custodian. The score remained 1-0 in favour of India at halftime.
The second-half saw a see-saw battle between the two sides with both teams creating good chances to score. Indian striker Krishna Pandit was seeing the ball more often, while Nepali goalkeeper had to make a few important saves too, including brilliantly tipping away Deependra Negi’s venomous volley from outside the box. Aakash Thapa, meanwhile, was creating a few problems for India, on the right flank. Thapa, a full-back, often used his pace to get himself into dangerous positions, while also keeping Indian attackers on their toes on the other end of the pitch. As the game progressed, the hosts dominated much of the ball, and were able to create quite a few chances. Despite these chances, the side failed to get past the Indian goalkeeper, while the strikers were also guilty of wasting decent chances to get onto level pegging with the Indians. With Dheeraj in inspired form, the boys in blue held on a late onslaught from the Nepal team to ensure its first ever regional U-16 title, leading to joyous celebrations from the Indian players.
Adaptability of Goutam Ghosh’s boys
While winning may not be everything at the tender early-teen years, the Indian victory is definitely proof of the healthy state of the AIFF regional academies. With the Indian side being the youngest team in the tournament, it is indeed quite encouraging to see the boys being able to adjust to the playing styles of different opponents. While the kids breezed through the group stage, the semi-final proved to be a much difficult assignment for India. A physically stronger Afghan side took India to the brink, but it was commendable to see that the latter didn’t let the Afghan side bully it into submitting into defeat. In fact, Goutam Ghosh’s boys adapted to the Afghan game and kept out its attackers for a large part of the game.
Against the hosts in the final, the team didn’t let the soggy conditions affect its game defensively, and brilliantly tackled a strong Nepalese side, that dominated much of the game offensively. While players have played their part, Goutam Ghosh must be credited for organizing his team effectively to adapt its games under different conditions. Ghosh’s supervision has definitely worked wonders for the team’s defence. The fact that the Indian side conceded just one goal throughout the tournament is no conincidence, although goalkeeper Dheeraj also played a large part in this feat.
The U-16 SAFF Cup has seen many Indian youngsters come to the fore. Although all the members of the team performed incredibly well, it is worth mentioning a few individuals who may not take too long to make a name in the senior side in future.
Mizoram’s Jerry Lalrinzuala has been a big contributor to the team, both offensively and at the back. The scorer of the winning goal in the final looks quite mature for his age, and is a bright prospect for the country. Bedashwor Singh is another kid to look out for, with some eye-catching performances throughout the tournament. Striker Krishna Pandit has a swift movement, and helps in bringing in other players into the game, but needs to gain some weight in order to be up against physically strong defenders.
Prosenjit Chakraborty has been another eye-catcher in the tournament for the Indian colts. However, few would disagree with the fact that Dheeraj Moirangthem has been the most influential player throughout the event. The Manipuri lad has been a commanding presence for the Indian side beneath the crossbar, and is definitely a talent to watch out for. However, there is still a long way to go for all the players. While AIFF has been grooming these boys well, world class facilities should be provided to these youngsters to help take them to the next level.