Five days after the heartbreaking loss of India U-16 in the decider of AFC U-16 Championship qualifiers. India U-19 began its campaign to qualify for the AFC U-19 Championship. Despite being clubbed in a tough group featuring hosts Qatar, Asian powerhouse Uzbekistan, Nepal and Turkmenistan, the expectations from the team were high as the nucleus of the team stayed the bunch of U-16 boys who had played in the 2012 AFC U-16 championship. The boys had been training in the AIFF Elite Academy for quite some time and had an exposure trip to China as well.
India took on hosts Qatar in the opening match of the campaign. The Qatar U-19 squad had prepared very well as the set of boys in the U-19 team had been selected with a view on the 2022 FIFA World Cup to be held in Qatar. Contrary to the expectations, the Blue Cubs started on a positive note with Lalrempuia Fanai, Kumam Udanta Singh and Germanpreet Singh in the thick of things. India won four corners in the first half compared to one earned by the hosts. The young Indian team was dominating in midfield with strikers Daniel Lalhlimpuia Shaiborlang Kharpan and Udanta Singh coming close to putting India ahead. It was however Qatar who began the second half with urgency and attacked relentlessly as India preferred to sit back deep. India were punished for sitting back when Qatari striker Akram Hassan converted from the spot in the 60th minute. Desperate for an equalizer Colm Toal brought in Uttam Rai and Alen Deory but with India pushing for an equalizer, Qatar doubled the lead on the counter-attack to put the match to bed.
India took on regional rivals Nepal in the second match and eked out a much needed 1-0 win thanks to a 87th minute goal from substitute SK Faiz. Realizing the importance of a win , the Blue Cubs began with an urgency and Nepal were always on the back-foot, defending in their own half. India earned three back to back corners inside the quarter of an hour but failed to covert any of those – all three of them taken by Germanpreet. Indians continued to create a plethora of chances but poor finishing continued to let the team down. The counter attacks of Nepal were however dealt well by the Indian defense with Sajid in particular putting in a solid display. Coach Colm Toal threw in SK Faiz and Alen Deory in the second half and with Nepal tiring down, the move proved correct when Faiz coolly slotted a long ball past the Nepal goalkeeper. Germanpreet Singh was one of the impressive performers for India on the night as he troubled the Nepal defense on both the wings. Udanta Singh was equally impressive in the match with his tireless running.
The third round saw Indian boys take on Uzbekistan. The two nations had squared off in the AFC U-16 championship last year where Uzbeks had edged past the Indians 3-2 before going on to win the tournament. While the India U-19 team largely consisted of players who had played in the AFC U-16 championship last year, their Uzbek counterparts were preparing for the FIFA U1-7 World Cup and hence the side which was playing in the AFC U19 championship were in effect a couple of years older than the Indian boys. Like the match against Qatar, India started on a positive note but Uzbeks came back into the match earning three corners inside the first 15 minutes. Udanta was proving to be a thorn in the Uzbekistan defense as he troubled them with his pace and one such Indian attack he was brought down inside the box but the referee refused to award a penalty much to the dismay of Indian team. Uzbekistan finally broke the deadlock 2 minutes from half-time when striker Abdiev Asliddin scored and the goal proved to be the turning point as Uzbeks scored two more in the by the 62nd minute to put the match to bed. Desperate for a goal, Colm Toal threw in SK Faiz and Uttam Rai and the duo did create trouble for the Uzbekistan defense but failed to score. Uttam’ s shot was brilliantly saved by the opposition goalkeeper.
India took on Turkmenistan hoping to end the campaign on a high. With India being out of reckoning for the top two spots, coach Colm Toal made three changes to the starting eleven that had started all the three previous matches. The 90 minutes of action that happened made Indian fans proud. India were down to 10 men after Sajid was sent off in the 8th minute for handling the ball in his own box and Turkmenistan made no mistake in converting from the spot. Despite going a man down, team India held its shape and created some chances with Isaac Chhakchuak coming close on the 35th minute. India went into the break tailing by goal but things soon turned in the second half. India went on the offensive right from the start of second half and were rewarded for their efforts when central defender Sarthak Golui equalized from a Germanpreet corner in the 48th minute. Udanta Singh and striker Isaac Chhakchuak were proving too much for the Turkmenistan defense and after a barrage of attacks, India went ahead in the 84th minute when Udanta scored after being fed in by Germanpreet. India were however unlucky to notch up a well deserved win when Turks equalized a minute later and the match ended in a 2-2 stalemate. Despite missing on a well deserved win, the boys showed tremendous character in playing almost the full match with a man down.
Despite failing to qualify, it was a invaluable experience for the young boys to compete at the biggest stage. Even against Qatar and Uzbekistan , both Asian powerhouses, the team was not overpowered and held its own in both the matches. Sajid Dhot had an impressive tournament and the lanky central defender was comfortable in the air and made some solid tackles. Sajid is just 15 years old and has a bright future ahead of him. Kumam Udanta Singh troubled the opposition defenders with his pace and the striker was at heart of most of the moves of the Indian team, even scoring a goal against Turkmenistan. The 17 year old Tata Football Academy cadet is one of the hottest property in the nation at the moment. Pune FC midfielder Lalrempuia Fanai played as an anchor in the midfield and dropped back to support the defenders defectively. The performances of left back Pritam Kumar also deserves special mention as the youngster not only defended well but also contributed to the attack. Germanpreet Singh looked lively on the flanks but his final delivery often let him down – one area where he would be looking to improve. On the other hand the quality in the final third was not up to the mark and finishing by the strikers left lot to be desired. This is one area where the team needs to work on. All said and done, the boys definitely made India proud and the future of Indian Football certainly looks encouraging.