India Today - - INSIDE - —Shougat Das­gupta

For In­dian foot­ball fans, Fri­day, Oc­to­ber 6, ought to be a mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion. An In­dian na­tional team will be mak­ing its de­but in the FIFA Un­der-17 World Cup. Hosts of this year’s edi­tion of the bi­en­nial tour­na­ment, In­dia qual­i­fied au­to­mat­i­cally. If the team can break out of its group, the young play­ers could earn the chance to test their skills against tra­di­tional pow­er­houses Brazil, Ger­many, Eng­land, France and Spain. But mak­ing the elim­i­na­tion round is a near-im­pos­si­ble task for neo­phytes.

In­dia’s Por­tuguese coach, Luis Nor­ton de Matos, in fact, gives the team al­most no chance to win a sin­gle game. “I am very con­fi­dent with this team,” he says, “but I am also a re­al­ist.” De Matos—a foot­ball jour­ney­man who played at the high­est level for the 10-time Bel­gian cham­pi­ons Stan­dard Liege—was capped five times for Por­tu­gal and his coach­ing ca­reer has taken him as far afield as Guinea-Bis­sau. He says In­dia has tal­ent, but lacks ex­pe­ri­ence. The play­ers on this team have been hot-housed at the All In­dia Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion (AIFF) Elite Academy in Goa, launched only in 2013. They’ve pre­pared for the World Cup by tour­ing the world, play­ing glo­ri­fied friendlies against mot­ley op­po­si­tion.

In com­pe­ti­tion, the team has strug­gled. In Au­gust, it par­tic­i­pated in a four-na­tion tour­na­ment in Mex­ico, a World Cup warm-up for the hosts, Colom­bia, Chile and In­dia. Af­ter heavy de­feats against both Mex­ico and Colom­bia, the team fin­ished with a cred­itable 1-1 draw against Chile, pos­si­bly its best ever re­sult. There was a flurry of ex­cite­ment over a 2-0 win over ‘Italy’ in May, but that turned out to be a rep­re­sen­ta­tive side made up of play­ers from lower level Ital­ian clubs rather than the coun­try’s un­der-17 na­tional team, which in any case failed to qual­ify for the World Cup.

The World Cup draw has also not been kind to In­dia. Its group in­cludes the US, Colom­bia and Ghana. Colom­bia beat In­dia 3-0 in the

Mex­i­can tour­na­ment. Ghana has won the

World Cup at this level twice, both in the 1990s.

The United States, mean­while, lost to two-time world cham­pion Mex­ico in the fi­nal of its con­ti­nen­tal com­pe­ti­tion on penal­ties. So you can see why de Matos be­lieves even one vic­tory in such a group would be a mir­a­cle.

De Matos took over the team only in March. Be­fore that, Ger­man Ni­co­lai Adam had led the team since 2015. But he stepped down af­ter play­ers al­leged both men­tal and phys­i­cal abuse on a dis­as­trous trip to Rus­sia in Jan­uary this year—dur­ing which they en­dured an 8-0 loss to the host, among other hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feats.

Ab­hishek Ya­dav, an AIFF ex­ec­u­tive and for­mer In­dian in­ter­na­tional, said de Matos asked him to find new play­ers to suit the less di­rect, more pos­ses­sion-based foot­ball he wanted In­dia to play. Tall and still in rea­son­able play­ing shape af­ter hav­ing fin­ished his ca­reer in 2011, Ya­dav says he has per­son­ally watched “more than 10,000 play­ers” at try­outs and camps held around the coun­try to find play­ers for the World Cup. Few fans, how­ever, have had a chance to watch this un­der-17 team.

This tour­na­ment is the first step in In­dia’s foot­balling fu­ture, and it’s up to the AIFF to en­sure there is a sec­ond by find­ing a way to pack the stands in the six host cities. As for the play­ers, the World Cup is a shop win­dow. The best re­sult for In­dia will be not a draw or even vic­tory but that some of th­ese young play­ers im­press for­eign scouts enough to be in­vited to play for a club abroad, where the fa­cil­i­ties, train­ing and at­ti­tude are world class.

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