NEW DELHI: Relaxed would be a good word. But the boy who would be king on Friday, Amarjit Singh, India’s first World Cup captain, was a bit more than that at the pre-match press conference. Nerveless would have described his demeanour better.
A journalist asked about missing his friends who failed to make the squad. His answer?
“There is plenty of time for friends after the World Cup.” There is nothing untoward about a footballer having no nerves before an important game but this isn’t just any footballer.
Amarjit is a seventeen-year-old kid tasked with leading out his team in the most hyped football game his country has ever played. A draw or win against the United States on Friday and Indian football truly would have arrived on the world stage.
A cricket score drubbing and all the euphoria over hosting a FIFA World Cup would die down almost as soon as it sparked up. In their defence, the most realistic outcome is somewhere in between — an honourable defeat.
A result that shows there is still much to go, but also that the distance is walkable. Yes, an insane amount of money has been spent on them. Yes, they’ve had opportunities to play in places that no Indian footballer has got before. But a couple of summers spent abroad won’t make a world class team.
“We have played tournaments all over the world,” said India coach Luis Norton de Matos. “But we need to play more. In a country like US, they have competitions for seven-year-old kids. They are coming here with ten years of competitive football behind them.”
“The weakness is that despite creating a lot of chances, the conversion rate is not very good,” De Matos said. “For example, a European player needs, maybe, three chances to score a goal. But Indians need seven. This is something they have to learn at the grassroots level. It is not possible to correct this in a short time.”
Curiously, it was an Indian striker that USA coach John Hackworth pointed out as the danger man — Aniket Jadhav. That match-up encapsulates India’s U-17 World Cup.
The son of an auto-rickshaw driver from Kolhapur, who first learnt how to rustle the net at some place called Krida Prabodhini, who furthered his skills at Pune FC’s academy, up against a defense with players who’ve received their footballing education at Europe’s top clubs.
But De Matos does not rule over an upset.
“We know how they are going to line up tomorrow,” he said.
“Football is a game where you cannot know what happens. We know the small weaknesses they have but they will be much more stronger. For us, we are going to play as a unit.”
“My advice to them,” De Matos continued, “is to enjoy the moment.” Perhaps that applies not just to the players. There have been dissenting noises about everything right from how the team was assembled to how the seats at the stadium are still dusty, and these will escalate when everyone realises that Indian football still has light years to travel to catch up with world standards.
But on Friday, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium will look as beautiful as it has ever done, the pitch inside worthy of comparison to the great European stadia of the lore.
There will be more than 45,000 people — not a completely organic audience, for the government has given away 27,000 tickets to schools, but a packed ground nonetheless. And to all the noise and bright lights, with the highest officials of the land and of FIFA watching on, an Indian team will march out for a World Cup game.
Maybe we should all just enjoy the moment.