Barely five days after they will play their last Group Stage match, India’s under-17 team is likely to play Qatar. This isn’t crystal ball gazing of their Round of 16 opponent at the World Cup. But as the tournament will shift gears and move into the knockout stages, India will return to doing what they’ve done for the last two years — play practice games.
Before that happens, though, the most-prepared Indian team will be put through a severe test. They have travelled across the world and played more than 100 matches in anticipation of this day. India eventually had to host the World Cup to be a part of it. And this Class of 2000 will become the first-ever Indian football team to play a World Cup — any World Cup — when they take on the USA tonight.
It’s a momentous occasion, nevertheless. On Thursday evening, just when India captain Amarjit Kiyam entered the press-briefing room, the hashtag ‘back the blue’ was trending on Twitter. Bollywood actors, cricketers and football stars were all tweeting their best wishes.
Amidst all this hype, however, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has remained realistic about the team’s abilities. “The excitement has built up. The momentum is good and stadium will be full. Realistically, everybody realizes we are in a tough group. But nobody is looking at performance per se of the Indian national team. The coach (Luis Norton de Matos), however, is saying don’t be surprised if there are upsets,” AIFF president Praful Patel says.
Patel had a wry smile on his face when he finished his last sentence. The parameters for success, in India’s case, are vague. A goal? A draw? A defeat margin of two or less goals? A win, even Patel knows, is taking it a bit too far.
India played the USA at the AIFF Youth Cup in Goa last year. USA won that match 4-0, their superior physique and technique proving too much for India to handle. It could have been more had they capitalised on their chances.
“But this doesn’t matter. When we played India last year, there were 40 people watching. On Friday, I am told there will be 40,000. To play with so many people cheering for you, the adrenaline rush really helps,” USA coach John Hackworth says.
Adrenaline is something India are banking on, as well. The blaring of vuvuzelas and a packed stadium was a crucial factor that earned South Africa the 1-1 draw against much-superior Mexico in the opening match of the 2010 World Cup. If Rahim Ali does a Siphiwe Tshabalala, that’ll perhaps qualify as an ‘upset’