U-17 World Cup: litmus test for India against gold standard USA

A little over five months ago, Kajol D’souza and Lavanya Upadhyay were playing football in the local league. The rest of her teammates who have been scouted during the pandemic only started training together nine months ago. And most of these players have never played a competitive international game.

On Tuesday, this group of teenagers meets USA, considered the gold standard in women’s football, in the opening match of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Bhubaneswar, a game that also marks India’s debut in youth competition.

From the pandemic to a lack of structure to the summons sacking of a coach, India’s road to the U-17 World Cup has been strewn with unprecedented challenges.

The biggest of these was putting together a team. With no proper women’s league or youth structure in place, it was difficult for Scouts to assemble the first Indian women’s team that would enter the competition. That meant they had to rely on school tournaments to determine the best players in the country. However, with the lockdown caused by the pandemic, most school tournaments have been cancelled.

It forced the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to call for special trials in places like Manipur, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Mangalore. During these three-day trials, most of the players were selected.

Despite the “less than ideal” preparation, to use the words of head coach Thomas Dennerby, the players are “mentally and physically ready for the tournament,” said the Swede on the eve of the India game at the Kalinga Stadium.

“Over 250 Sessions”

Dennerby seemed content with the fact that after camps first in Jamshedpur and then in Bhubaneswar he had a total of over “250 different sessions” with the team. “I hope we are prepared now. Both physically, with fitness, as well as technically and tactically,” said Dennerby.

India face a baptism of fire against a team from the USA looking to add an U-17 title to their glittering trophy cabinet of four A-Women’s World Cups and three U-20 World Cups. Their seriousness about winning the competition is shown by the fact that a month ago they sent a delegation to thoroughly explore the venues, their training locations and the general conditions.

After the game against USA, India will meet their debutants Morocco on October 14. While Morocco have never participated in a Women’s World Cup before, their senior team has qualified for the 2023 World Cup to be hosted in Australia & New Zealand. Her qualification for the Senior World Cup was no coincidence. This is the result of a robust youth line-up and a decent women’s football structure that helped them defeat a coveted Ghana on penalties in the finals of the African Qualifying Tournament.

In their final group match, India will face a very talented Brazilian team who are easily title contenders. Brazil are yet to progress through the quarter-finals of a U-17 World Cup, but given the origins of their players, they cannot be ruled out.

Both USA and Brazil will be battling for top spot in the group, meaning big wins against India could ultimately make all the difference. And that is why India must be relentless, at least on defence.

Herculean task

However, it will be a Herculean task. The team did not win a game on their exposure tours in Italy and Norway. On their trip to Spain, they lost to Sweden 3-1 before beating a local team from WSS Barcelona 17-1.

While struggling on the field, the team also struggled off the field. Specifically the case of former assistant coach Alex Ambrose, who was ousted from the setup after he was accused of alleged misconduct with one of the players during a disclosure trip. A POCSO (child abuse) case has been registered against him in Delhi, despite being granted bail.

The incident has left players rocked, according to team officials, especially since most of them were scouted by Ambrose.

While their off-field problems will take a back seat, what matters for now is what they can do on the pitch. And it’s not like they don’t have anything to offer. The preparatory camps and friendlies have shown that they can cause surprises.

Jharkhands Astam Oraon, a left-back, has been named the team’s captain. If their recent games are any indication that India are very strong down the left and that is thanks to Astam’s maturity and determination. Another player to watch out for on this team is left winger Neha, whose plundering runs and pinpoint crosses have caught the attention of club scouts. In the middle of the field is Nitu Linda, who is the shortest player in the squad at just under 1.50m, but makes up for it with her speed.

The core of the team – five of the starting XI, including Astam – hail from inland Jharkhand, with their parents mostly being farmers. They had to sacrifice and fight to get here. That made her mentally strong, says Astam. “It’s a bit nervous playing against such good teams, but we’ve grown mentally. We don’t know if we’re going to win or lose, but we’ll fight for each other. We worked very hard for it,” she said in a recent Twitter post.

India knows they have to do more than their best to even come close to causing an upset. Five years ago, despite years of togetherness and travel around the world, the men’s team lost all their matches at the U-17 World Cup.

The women are not even halfway through this preparation. However, this has not affected the self-confidence and Dennerby relies on home support. “We have the supporters on our side. We will also show that India have a really good team with a lot of young players who can play at the highest level in this age group,” he said.
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