In the mid 2010s, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had assembled a young group of boys to prepare for the country’s first ever appearance at a major FIFA tournament. The U17 World Cup was round the corner and being the hosts, India had an automatic berth in the competition.
The AIFF left no stone unturned. The group had been readied, selected meticulously through months of scouting and training camps, it was time to test their mettle on the field. Around July 2015, the squad started going on exposure trips, the first of which was in Germany. The objective was to finalise a set starting XI by the time the World Cup came round, something that then coach Nicolai Adam stressed on immensely.
Either way, it was on such exposure trips, where India would play against the junior teams of footballing powerhouses of the world. Naturally, the group of young talented boys would come up against the future global football stars like Erling Braut Haaland and Vinicius Junior.
Back in 2016, India U16 faced Norway U16, not a major name in European football, yet. Little did they know that Haaland, already a phenom back in his country, was waiting to unleash his goal-scoring prowess. The Indians gave a good account of themselves and were, in fact, looked more likely to go ahead in the first half but poor finishing let them down.
In the second half though, once Sanjeev Stalin received his marching orders for a poor tackle, Halaand and Co. took control. Within minutes the tall lanky forward, who has set the German Bundesliga on fire ever since joining Borussia Dortmund, scored the opening goal of the game — quite unsurprisingly, a towering header that India’s custodian Mohammad Nawaz had no chance of saving. Eventually, Norway would go on to win 2-0, a comfortable margin, and establish their stronghold over the Indians.
“The Norway game was very difficult. But it was a good game for us as well. We held them for a long time, and then they scored in the second half. It was a good match, and we learnt a lot from this game,” recalls Amarjit Singh Kiyam, India’s captain at the U17 World Cup, in an exclusive interaction with The Bridge.
Bengaluru FC’s Suresh Singh Wangjam, who was tasked with marking Haaland during the build-ups, also remembers just how tough the match was. “We knew it was not going to be an easy game,” he says. “We had a plan to face them. We knew their style of play and that they had one key player (Haaland). It was a bit easy for us to know who's going to mark the key player so that we put them under pressure and stop them from playing the ball forward.”
“We even got few chances to score but we ended up shooting the ball off target. Nawaz played his heart out in that game. But we conceded two in the second half,” Suresh adds.
Norway celebrate after Haaland's goal against India (Source: SteP @YouTube)
“We had to work really hard to keep it 0-0 till half time,” says Nawaz, who has now cemented a first team place at FC Goa. “They had physically stronger players. It got tougher in the second half, when we lost one man. The result could have been different had we been with 11 men on the pitch.”
The young goalkeeper also made quite a few saves off Haaland, something that any modern day keeper would be proud of. “I honestly did not know who Haaland was back then. We were 15 or 16, and I honestly had no idea who he was. But later when I saw him sign for Dortmund, I recognised him, and I remembered those saves I had made against him. I feel proud that I had represented my country in a match against such a top player,” he says when asked about those saves against Halaand.
“It inspires me to see him play at such a top level. I also have dreams to play in Europe perhaps one day. Hope I get there, and when I do, I’ll be looking forward to making a few more saves against Haaland,” Nawaz adds cheekily.
Interestingly, the Indian colts met up with another global superstar-to-be prior to the World Cup. This time it was Brazil’s Vinicius Junior, who would go on to sign a record deal with Spanish giants Real Madrid months later.
India took on Brazil in the 2016 BRICS U-17 Football Cup, a tournament which saw five teams taking part. Vinicius, of course, finished as the top scorer with four goals from five matches. He also scored in his team’s 3-1 victory over India where Komal Thatal got the consolation goal for the Blue Colts.
Amarjit in action against Brazil (Source: AIFF)
Amarjit, who was by then an integral member of the World Cup squad, concedes that the match against Brazil U17 was probably one of the toughest games they had played. “The game against Brazil was more difficult,” he remembers. “They were passing the ball with such fluidity that it was extremely difficult to mark their players. You make one mistake in the defensive third, and they will punish you. I remember we had conceded very early, and then Komal had equalised in the first half. But they soon scored another. Then, Vinicius scored the third late on.”
“Of course I didn’t know who he was back then. But I think it was 2-3 months after that match that he was signed by Real Madrid, and that’s when he caught our attention. We instantly recognised his face – we had played against this guy,” Amarjit says.
“On the one hand, it felt really proud that we played against someone who would go on to play at one of the biggest clubs in the world. On the other hand, it also motivated me to work really hard. I had played against someone who could very well turn out to be one of the best players in the world. I felt that if I work hard enough I can also perhaps achieve big things some day.
“We learnt so much from those exposure tours and tournaments. Playing against such quality opponents gave us a lot of confidence that we too could compete against these nations. Perhaps we did not realise back then how much quality these opponents had, but I do realise now, after seeing Haaland and Vinicius do so well at the top of world football. These are experiences that I will cherish forever, and tell my friends and family. These are things that one tells his grandchildren. I’d really like to thank AIFF for giving me such opportunities,” the Jamshedpur FC man, who is seen as a future star of the national football team, concludes.