NEW DELHI: The same day the Indian U-17 team was applauded off the pitch by more than 50,000 people, another team exited the U-17 World Cup unnoticed.
New Zealand's tournament was not as bad as that of the hosts. Like India, their final group game, a one-sided 3-1 loss to Mali was their worst. But they managed a point in their opener against Turkey and scored two in a loss to Paraguay in their next game. Yet, while their Indian counterparts will end the tournament as some of the most sought-after footballers in the country, the biggest question many of New Zealand's boys will face is whether to stay in football or not.
"For some, I know that they'll be thinking 'I don't want to be a footballer'," says New Zealand's captain Max Mata. "But for some it'll be like 'this is what I want and this is what I am going to do'. So I think it is going to be a good wake-up call, a turning point in their careers."
"There are a couple of us who have properly experienced and witnessed it now, and just want to soak it all up and go further. But I don't think there are too many."
Compare that to some of the other teams who were good enough to get here. Most of French, English, Spanish and Germans are already at top clubs while the African players will be keeping an eye out for a European scout, on the lookout for something special and who can pluck them from obscurity and poverty. Even players from the lesser teams — India being a good example — will be pinning their hopes on a stellar career in their home leagues. In the middle of all these kids who look to football for deliverance, the Kiwis stick out like a sore thumb.
Yet, this is something that has been happening in New Zealand for a while. Take their 2009 U-17 team for instance. They qualified for the knockout round after remaining unbeaten in the group stages, against the likes of Costa Rica with the likes of Joel Campbell (currently on loan at Real Betis from Arsenal) and Turkey with their usual mix of Germany-based players.
But while almost all of their opponents are now playing top division football across the world, many from that Kiwi squad are doing other things. Like Alex Carr, who identifies himself as a medical student on Linkedin, yet has been the goalkeeping coach for the New Zealand Women's U-20 squad. Or Thomas Spragg whose profile describes him as a Business & Sports Sales Agent for the app company, but also talks of his stint as the All Whites' assistant manager. Spragg's younger brother Charles incidentally was part of the New Zealand squad in India.
"A very tiny percentage carry on in football," says Mata. "Some people kick on, but it is too tough."
Mata himself though is fully committed to being a professional footballer. "Coming into this World Cup, I was already 100 per cent motivated to be a footballer," he says.
"Now that we are leaving the World Cup, I don't know how, but I'm even more motivated to become the best footballer that I can."