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Long balls, sitting back, nerves: Mapping out India’s anti-climactic U-17 Asian Cup exit

A lot of hope was riding on this crop of Indian footballers, the hope that dared to dream of qualifying for the U17 World Cup. That hope seemed possible, at least till before the start of the Asian tournament.

Long balls, sitting back, nerves: Mapping out India’s anti-climactic U-17 Asian Cup exit

India U-17 (image via AIFF)


Rajdeep Saha

Updated: 25 Jun 2023 8:38 AM GMT

Supporting the Indian national team has its perks, but most of the time, it gives you pangs of anxiety and anger.

While the men’s senior team recently gave a 4-0 drubbing to neighbours Pakistan in a SAFF Championship encounter, the U-17 boys faced a 4-8 defeat at the hands of Japan to complete their brave yet anti-climactic exit from the AFC U-17 Asian Cup.

Like many, I was sold by the Blue Colts’ effortless playing style, something refreshing to see in Indian Football. Keeping the ball, threading the needle with their passes, and dropping of the shoulders; attributes not usually associated with the ‘Indian’ style of playing. But these boys had already showed this style during their SAFF U-17 Championship title back in September 2022.

India U-17 with the SAFF trophy(Image via MyKhel)

A lot of hope was riding on this crop of youngsters, the hope that dared to dream of qualifying for the U17 World Cup. The hope seemed possible, at least till before the start of the Asian tournament.

In the first match, Bibiano Fernades’ team played out an impressive 1-1 draw against Vietnam, thanks to Malemngamba Thokchom’s long-ranger. Next up was a familiar foe in Uzbekistan who’d faced India in two friendlies, with the sides scooping up a victory apiece. However, when it mattered the most, the Uzbeks scored the all-important goal to defeat India 1-0.

That left India with the uneviable task of having to beat Japan. No prizes for guessing how that went!

Sitting back never did anyone good

Before kick-off against Japan, I prayed a little silent prayer to the footballing gods, requesting them to somehow compel the Indian team to not sit back and defend, especially in a game where they had nothing to lose.

What did they do? They sat back.

For the first half, the boys in blue aimed to absorb the pressure. Unfortunately, the pressure translated into goals.

Gakuto Kawamura blasted the ball past Sahil with ease in the 12th minute to give Japan an early lead. Soon thereafter, the Japanese players struck the woodwork three times. This served as a warning sign and a let-off in equal measure as India still couldn’t create much of their own.

Like clockwork, the boys in white added two more goals before halftime, leaving India trailing by three goals, despite skipper Korou Singh coming close on one occasion.

India U-17 in the AFC U-17 Asian cup

At the end of the first 45 minutes, Japan’s 67% possession meant that they had knocked on India’s goal 12 times to India's one. Nobody expected the Blue Colts to win from this stage, but the second half saw a changed side.

“We had a plan in the first half about how we can stop Japan, their quality passing, especially in the midfield. They overpowered our plan with their quality. In the second half, we tried coming more, pushing more on the defenders with three pressing in front and three behind and that bit worked for us. The boys showed good character after going down in the first half. In the end, it's positive for us and we look forward and move forward and take all the learnings and go back,” coach Bibiano Fernandes said after the match.

The Indian side which started the second half proved that the Japan U-17 boys could well fall into the theory of the ‘strawberry generation’. A little bit of pressure and they’ll crumble.

This is what India’s front three did. A good amount of pressure mixed with great intercepting skills helped Mukul Panwar brush the ball via a Vanlalpeka Guite cross in the 47th minute.

However, this didn’t faze the Japanese. The defending champions went about their business and scored two more goals in quick succession. While it was clear that India was exiting the competition that night, the boys continued pressing and managed to score three more goals before the final whistle. If it wasn’t for Thanglalsoun Gangte’s wasteful finishing, they could have gotten a couple more. What did this show? It showed that sitting back had never been a good idea.

This trend could also be seen in India’s previous two group-stage matches. In their tournament opener, they played on the front foot and managed a draw against Vietnam. The Blue Colts had 57% possession in the match and had 12 shots on goal, with three on target.

Against Uzbekistan, the numbers were abysmal. Sticking to their sit-back policy, the Indians could only muster up four shots on goal as compared to the Uzbeks’ 23! While Fernandes’ boys defended well that evening, allowing their opponents to attack every other minute meant they had to concede at some point.

A big ball of nerves

One must remember that the players are in fact, kids. A stage like the Asian Cup will be nerve-wracking for the level-headed Sunil Chhetri, these are on the cusp of their professional careers.

While the U-17 boys did hold their own against the likes of Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, playing against countries at the continental stage is a different ball game.

Out of the 23-member squad, 10 hailed from Manipur, the northeastern state which finds itself in the clutches of violence and disharmony. That might have been playing on the minds of the Manipuris, despite Bibiano’s reassurances before the tournament that care and support was being given to them.

India U-17 vs Japan(image via AIFF)

Even if we remove the constant worry about their families back home, on many occasions, the side didn’t look like a team that has been playing together since 2022. Missed passes, running into traffic, and an overall air of nervous energy ruled the roost.

When The Bridge quizzed the coach about handling the boys’ nerves in such crucial competitions, he said, “Yes, that is why the competitive matches are important, playing tournaments is important. Playing long legs is important to take away all the nervousness. So, more number of matches, more tournaments, longer legs will help us in the future.”

A silver lining?

The willingness to not be completely dominated, to not be sidelined, and to not just be a footnote in the tournament, has to mean something. Perhaps the silver lining from the tournament has to be the age these boys are. Scoring four goals against the defending champions and making them doubt themselves, even if it was for a fleeting moment, is commendable.

Bibiano Fernandes wasn’t averse to the idea of a league specifically for youth players. While the Elite U-17 League exists, a proper Indian Super League-esque league going on simultaneously with the main tournament can spell wonders for the youngsters.

Bibiano Fernandes (Image via AIFF)

Indian age-group teams have excelled in their own ways and that it is in the transition to the senior level where they often falter. Getting scooped up by I-league and ISL clubs don’t help the cause. From the U-20 squad which won the SAFF Championship last year, the likes of Himanshu Jangra and Gurkirat Singh, who were signed by East Bengal and Mumbai City FC respectively, barely got game time last season. This supports the idea of starting proper, well-structured leagues starting from the U-17 level, if not younger.

June 23, the day India bowed out of the U-17 Asian Cup, was also the AIFF Grassroots Day, when the federation’s grassroots programme ‘Blue Cubs’ manual was released, delineating how the AIFF aims to improve the game amongst children between the ages of 4 and 12. If this does not epitomize the aphorism ‘If one door closes, another one opens’, then I don’t know what does.

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