The Indian U-16 team

Results hardly matter at the age group levels. It is always the development process which is outlined as the topmost priority by coaches. When the Indian U-16 went down fighting to their Kuwaiti counterparts on Sunday evening in Kuwait City, some Indian hearts were visibly left broken. A few members were seen shedding a tear or two after the loss; some of them were absolutely inconsolable. However, apart from the final scoreline against Kuwait, one can only feel delighted about the Indian colts showings in Kuwait. This year’s U-16 qualifiers brought to the fore a level of maturity previously not seen among the young Indian sides. The way the players passed the ball, and seemed comfortable with it at their feet, certainly bodes well for the future of Indian football. The young side did fail to get past the qualifiers, but the team’s performances during the four games show that there are a lot of positives to bring home from this campaign.

The Goutam Ghosh-coached side started its campaign with a 1-1 draw against Tajikistan. After falling behind by a goal in the first half, the U-16 boys, U-15 in actuality, displayed their fighting spirit in the second half to hold the Tajiks to a 1-1 draw, courtesy of a 56th minute goal from Prosenjit Chakraborty. In fact, had it not been for a solid defensive performance from the Tajik kids, India could well have had three points from the game. Four days later, the Indian kids showed their lethal side against the Lebanon U-16s. Playing in their second game of the qualifiers, the Indian colts completely destroyed the Lebanese side, with right winger Nuruddin being the star of the show. The 15-year old not only scored an absolute belter in the 9th minute of the game, but continued to tease with the Lebanese defence for the rest of the game. Inspired by Nuruddin, the Indians dominated the entire game, with Jayananda Singh doubling India’s lead in the 43rd minute. The Lebanese side struck back against the run of play in the 58th minute, but with frontmen Anirudh Thapa, Bedashwor Singh and Prasenjit Chakraborty all in good vein, India scored a couple of goals within four minutes, courtesy of Thapa and Singh, to seal the game in their favour.

The Indian team acknowledges the crowd after the win against Lebanon.

In the next game, the youngsters trounced a hapless Bhutanese side by eight goals to one, to keep their qualifying hopes alive. It was the impressive Prasenjit Chakraborty who got into the scoresheet on three occasions, with Jayananda, Bedashwor, Jerry Lalrinzuala, India’s hero in the final of the 2013 U-16 SAFF Championship, Edmund Lalrindika and Nuruddin scoring a goal each. With favorites Kuwait waiting in the next game, the annihilation of Bhutan was a big morale booster to Goutam Ghosh’s boys. The next game against the more-fancied Kuwait itself displayed the kids’ recent progress in the footballing field. With the more physically imposing Kuwaiti side being favored to dominate the game, the Indian boys, to the surprise of everyone watching, turned out to be the side controlling the proceedings, with slick one-touch passing among the midfielders denying the hosts any opportunity to use their superior physical stature. For the Indian fans attending the game, a few thousands of NRIs based in the city, it was a treat to watch the side. Much to the agony of the blues, however, it were the hosts who drew first blood in the game, with Khaled Alenezi scoring as early as the eight minute to peg India back. Despite falling behind, the Indian colts continued to dominate the game. Winger Nuruddin continued his fine form in the tournament, and proved to be a constant headache to the Kuwaiti defence. A minute before halftime, Kuwait, however, against the run of play, doubled their lead courtesy of a penalty, after goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem was harshly adjudged to have impeded a Kuwaiti forward. After conceding just before the break, most teams wouldn’t have had the stomach to try and fight back. It could well have been the beginning of a Kuwaiti deluge; but as things panned out in the second half, the Indian side instead came back stronger and took the game straight to the Kuwaitis. The Indian colts completely dominated the proceedings post the breather, and pulled a goal back via Krishna Pandit, who was introduced at the hour mark. The hosts, however, used their physical presence at the back, and somehow, kept out the Indian attack. The game ended 2-1 in favour of Kuwait, but it was Indian football which was the real winner. The fact the Indian kids were sent off to a standing ovation by the fans, bears witness to the beautiful football these brave kids displayed throughout the past few days.

What was most surprising to see throughout the qualifiers was the way the Indian team, comprised of U-15 players, dominated teams older than them. One cannot ignore the fact that during these early teenage years, even a difference of one year can make a huge difference; and the Indian side’s displays will be of huge encouragement to the fans. Anyone who watched this team play will admit that there is something different about this side; the technical and tactical understanding of these kids is almost unbelievable. They have a dimension to their game that was previously unseen in Indian football. The AIFF academies are certainly starting to bear fruits; Goutam Ghosh and his team behind the scenes, however, deserve equal praise for bringing the best out of these boys. Players like Dheeraj, Jerry, Prasenjit, Bedashwor, Pandit, Nuruddin, etc., may well go on to form the core of the Indian national team in a few years’ time, and if their current performances are anything to go by, Indian football fans can sit assured of a good time ahead for the blue tigers in the not-so-distant future.