Indian National Football team may be struggling to make a mark on the continental level but the age group teams have consistently performed well at the Asian level. Be it the AFC U-22 Qualifiers last July or the AFC U-16 Championship, Indian age group teams have earned a name for themselves and are a force to reckon with. The India U-14 team traveled to the Iran to play in the AFC U-14 qualifiers where the match duration was 60 minutes, with the winner of the group to get a place in the AFC U-14 championship
Team India were drawn in Group D of the AFC U-14 Championship along side hosts Iran, central Asian nations Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan and neighbors Pakistan. Under the guidance of coach Narayana Menon who was associated with Pailan Arrows last season, the squad left for Iran on 20th of April after a training camp in Goa. The team was as follows –
Goalkeepers: Dheeraj Singh, Mohammad Nawaz, Antonio Da Silva.
Defenders: Amarjeet Mishra, Amartya Basu, Anwar Ali, Jaskaranpreet Singh, Jitendra Singh, Smiel Diyali, Flan Ansil Gomes, Ritik Rai.
Midfielders: Abhijit Sarkar, Hrishi Dhat, Mohammad Shahjahan, Sudipto Malakar, Ribhav Jatin Sardesai, Ajay Alex Anthony.
Forwards: Abu Tahir, Gaston D’Silva, Khumanthem Ninthoinganba, Shubham Sarangi.
Flan Gomes who was voted as the outstanding player in the FCBEscola Tournament, was the player to watch out for in the India Team. Goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh was appointed as the captain of the squad.
India began its campaign against the toughest opponents in their group – hosts Iran and went down fighting 1-3. Defender Jitendra Singh headed Indians into the lead on 5th minute but Iran equalized 9 minutes later and went into the break with a one goal lead. A third Iran goal in the 53rd minute ended Indian hopes of a comeback.
The colts however bounced back in style in the second game defeating Kyrgyzstan 4-1 to notch up their first victory in the qualifiers. Indians took the lead through striker Abu Tahir with midfielder Abhijit Sarkar grabbing the assist. Kyrgyzstan equalized in the 18th minute through a spot kick. Winger Khumanthem Ninthoinganba however put India ahead again with a beautiful goal in the 26th minute after Hrishi Dhat had set him up, before left back Anwar Ali made it 3-1 at the half an hour mark. Ninthoingba added his second and made it 4-1 in the 52nd minute to notch up a well deserved victory for India who found themselves in the third spot after two matches with Iran and Pakistan above them.
India took on arch-rivals Pakistan in the third match on the 28th of April and went down fighting, 2-0. A goal in each half by the Pakistan duo of Muhammad Akhlas and Majeed Khan in the 9th and the 45th minute ended all hopes of qualification for the Blue cubs. For Pakistan it was their third win in as many matches while it was the second loss for Indians in three matches.
Aiming to end on a high, team India took on Turkmenistan who had secured only one point in their first three encounters. Coach Narayana Menon had a host of changes in the inconsequential rubber but despite the changes, it was India who began as the better side and midfielder Ajay Alex gave India the lead in the 13th minute. After the break defender Jitendra Singh converted a penalty in the 35th minute which was earned by Khumanthem Ninthoinganba. Abhijit Sarkar put the match beyond Turkmenistan when he scored from a Abu Tahir ball in the 57th minute. Despite going down to 10 men in the dying moments after Abu Tahir was sent off, Indian colts hung on to the win.
Hosts Iran clinched the top spot after they defeated Pakistan in the deciding rubber. Pakistan finished second followed by India who finished third ahead of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan More than the results, the exposure and the experience of playing at the highest level matters and being a part of the Indian U-14 team will do these young boys a lot of good. The performances of some players was really encouraging and augurs well for future. With the U-16 and U-19 teams scheduled to play the AFC U-16 and U-19 qualifiers later in the year, we can expect more positive results form the Indian age group teams.