Group A was the only pool in the ongoing FIFA Under-17 World Cup which saw three teams finish on six points. It was a testament to the quality of football offered by the visiting sides. Ghana, the United States and Colombia recorded two wins, scoring five goals each in the process.
And then there was India. The hosts finished with no points and a negative goal difference of eight. No other side in the competition had a worse record. In a World Cup of 24 teams, India finished 24th. Ho-hum.
Of course, it did not come as a surprise. India were seen as the weakest side in the tournament by many. But those who had a vested interest tried to convince us that miracles can happen. They did not.
In fact it is worth stating that the only game India should have drawn, they lost. Colombia was pushed and hassled but not held. Afterwards, coach Luis Norton de Matos said he was immensely proud of his side. It seemed as if gaining points in the tournament was an outside consideration.
And that’s fine. Understandable, too. Matos emphasised the “process” for a team which still viewed competitive experience as an alien phenomenon. The Indian side will certainly be better for the matches it played. Debutants, after all.
New Caledonia and Niger, though, had their first taste of a FIFA competition too. The Oceania representative finished with a point while the Nigeriens are preparing for a round of 16 contest against Ghana in Navi Mumbai. India’s football infrastructure is certainly ahead of the two debutants. It’s better than Ghana too, if the Black Starlets’ head coach Paa Kwesi Fabin is to be believed.
Hence, questions need to be asked of India’s preparation and displays. Nearly $2.5 million (Rs 15 crore) was spent to prepare the side in the lead-up to the World Cup. Now that the campaign is over, we need to reflect on the tournament’s meaning for Indian football.
India’s high point at the World Cup was, of course, the goal scored by Jeakson Singh. The Ghana match aside, the hosts could have had more such joys in the other games. But inexperience shone through. Indian players demonstrated remarkably poor decision making when they had possession. The rare neat combination aside, India floundered with the ball. Picking the best option, as the hosts’ players found out, was not easy.
Matos’ coaching should be particularly put under scrutiny. The coach made four changes each for both the second and third match. It is not that alterations to the team are bad in themselves, but it is the curious nature of his decisions. Matos decided to not pick Komal Thatal after the opening match, despite the winger standing out among his teammates. When asked to explain what had changed for matches against Colombia and Ghana, he blamed Thatal’s slight figure.
But when did Matos learn about the Sikkimese wide man’s weaknesses? And if he possessed these doubts, why was Thatal picked for one game? The confusion over the winger’s non-selection reflected a greater concern with the way this Indian side was formed. A haphazard scouting process underpinned its foundations.
The money spent on the current lot, though, necessitates that support for it does not evaporate. The US coach John Hackworth alluded to this need ahead of his team’s round of 16 contest against Paraguay. “When you invest the time and money that has gone into this pool of players, I hope they continue with that. It might not be the same roster. Some of the guys who failed to make this team may go on to be a part of it in the future. Hopefully they follow those players. If I were in charge, that’s how I would look at it.”
For sides like the US, Colombia and Ghana, though, Group A was the appropriate build up to the knockout stage. The Colombian coach, Orlando Restrepo, discussed the strength of the pool at the beginning of the World Cup when he mentioned that each side was going to play a different style of football. It is also worth mentioning that the three teams which qualified showed that they are tactically adaptive too. For instance, Colombia shifted from a 4-2-1-3 formation to 3-4-1-2 for its clash against the US and found a sharper disposition in attack.
The United States particularly stood out for their attacking effervescence, with three attacking players—Josh Sargent, Ayo Akinola and Andrew Carleton—impressing throughout. As for Ghana, it shook off its goalscoring problems against India and the vibrant potency of Eric Ayiah, Aminu Mohammed and Sadiq Ibrahim will be worth keeping an eye on.
It will certainly not come as a surprise to anyone if all three sides from Group A make it to the quarters. Yet, for obvious reasons, the focus in this group was on the hosts. The narrative was built around India’s debut appearance at FIFA World Cup.
Before the tournament began, perhaps it would have been satisfying to see India finish with zero points and a negative goal difference of eight. But there’s one benefit to hosting this World Cup which should not be overlooked. It is the possibility for India to broaden its horizons.
Teams with worse support and equally poor experience outdid the host. It might be worth the time of Indian football administrators to learn from other participating nations. Splurging money on exposure tours is not the answer, as has been clearly established during this World Cup. But then, going by the AIFF’s record, one should not bet on it. Ho-hum.
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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2017 11:54:47 IST