FATORDA : The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was shrouded in rain when India’s U-16 team walked out for their game against United Arab Emirates. Only a handful had braved the rain to witness a moment that will be looked upon in the future, as either the rebirth of Indian football or a wasted resustication opportunity. The boys were dressed for the part — the new sky blue jersey, reminiscent of some numbers that Uruguay have rocked over the years, was unlike anything an Indian football team had been clad in this millennium. As the colts took their first few kicks, a sense of realisation was dawning upon everyone watching the game. This was unlike any Indian football team in recent memory.
For the hardcore Indian football supporter, dedicated enough to watch the youth team’s games from faraway lands on YouTube, this was far from the first introduction to these kids. They had been playing together under the watchful eyes of German coach Nicolai Adam, probably getting more matches under their belt in that duration than the senior team had in a decade. But for the casual fan, this was the first ever look at the footsoldiers who will represent the country in a world cup (FIFA U-17 WC next year) for the first time — their first televised game. This was the first impression that the likes of Boris Singh, Dheeraj Singh and Sanjeev Stalin would make on public consciousness. If the day’s fare was anything to go by, it certainly won’t be the last.
The team may have ended up losing 2-3 to UAE in the opening game of the Asian U-16 Championships, but this was nothing like what one would expect from a fixture between the two sides. For large parts of the game, it was UAE who were withstanding a barrage, their goalkeeper often the difference between India and a goal. It was the visitors who often had to resort to one-route football, while the kids-in-blue strung together intricate passes. The kids were attempting the kind of shots that only Sunil Chhetri in the senior team would have dared. Not everything came off, but Adam on the sidelines would not have minded. He had stressed the importance of players expressing themselves on the pitch from day one, and that was what they were doing.
“We certainly did not expect them to play at the level they were playing in the first half,” UAE coach Abdelmajeed al Nemer said after the game.
Indeed the first goal came in just the eleventh minute, with Stalin, a midfielder converted into a left-back by Adam, curling in off a set-piece. UAE did find an equaliser in the first half, but India took just a couple of minutes to regain the lead, Boris — India’s main attacking outlet — slotting it in.
If the first half saw teams attempt traits unfamiliar to Indian football, the second half saw the return of familiar evils. The team automatically dropped a gear after the hour-mark, the defenders started to lag behind UAE’s long-ball-chasing forwards. Two UAE goals followed in quick succession. India had chances to level but a goal never came.
“I don’t think the energy was the problem,” said Adam after the game. “In football, decision-making is always the problem. When you dribble too far away from the opponent’s goal, you lose energy. We lost the match because of the decisions we made in the second half.”