Football games are like Radiohead songs. Regardless of the highs, lows, the refrains, Thom Yorke’s massively under appreciated octave length or the guitar solos that break each song into smaller, palatable parts, it is the consistent bass rhythm playing through a track that makes it a catchy pop culture success. Strip open any Radiohead track and the basics are the same. A thumping bass forms the skeleton of the song, and will have you humming it for days on end.
A football game’s bass rhythm is provided by a midfield conductor. Despite the acts by the goalscorers, the goalkeeper and the wing backs, the bass player’s orchestrations influences the match most.
However, all of those analogies on football’s on-field dynamics matter very little today if you are an Indian football fan. There is no point of tactically unwrapping Indian football team’s 0-1 loss at the AFC U-16 Championship quarterfinals to South Korea just yet. The missed opportunity in Kuala Lumpur on October 1 provides enough pain. In an empty stadium, where even on the broadcast, you could hear players calling for the ball, land coaches shouting instructions, all in the arc of an echo, India came close. But no cigar.
2002. Sixteen years ago, India faced South Korea in the quarterfinals of the AFC U-16 Championships and lost 3-1. The scoreline has come down but it will be tough to argue that the gulf in quality has narrowed.
India went 337 minutes in the tournament without conceding. Enroute the date with South Korea, they beat Vietnam and went muscle to muscle with Iran in a 0-0 stalemate. When they finally did concede, against Korea, the dream was shattered.
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There was always this danger. It is the danger of being a well organised, deliberately drilled defensive machine. When Plan A is broken, when your fort walls are breached, very little is offered back. Defensive teams are troublesome units. They are not enjoyable to watch. Not enjoyable to follow. Not enjoyable to rally behind (unless you are blindly partisan). When they win, the grit is admirable. It is lauded and applauded. When they lose, suddenly, it seems difficult to see progress.
If you had an inclination towards the Twitter world, then following the hashtag #AFCU16 would have led you to the simple, yet perhaps, accurate conclusion that India were playing boring George Graham football in the quarterfinals. More often than not, when in possession, India looked to break through the long ball. It was a trend that followed through the game, but by then perhaps everyone simply got used to it.
If India were a tough nut to crack, then South Korea, it must be mentioned still haven’t had their goal breached in the tournament. Their minutes have added up. On this performance, we may not be a mile off their pace, but there is definitely room to climb.
South Korea had 13 corners in the game to India’s two. They had significantly more of the ball. More shots on and of target. India’s best player, was, by a margin, their shot-stopper Niraj Kumar.
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And so, obviously, because the law of averages have to, well, average out, it was Niraj’s mistake that led to South Korea’s goal. A fluffed clearance on the left wing, a simple turn and scuffed shot which Niraj could only weakly palm away into the path of Jeong Sangbin to score. In the build-up, India had looked lethargic. Even before the dooming clearance, there had been several half shots out from the back. After having defended their hearts out in previous games, it seemed in this one, with an hour of play done, the defence had decided that it would rather do something else.
There is much heart to take, of course. But for now, it is better to treat the break. A win would have meant that for the first time in Indian football’s long, rough and inglorious history, we would have qualified for a World Cup on merit. As of now though, that dream is on hold. South Korea will take their place in the Asian pantheon, after missing out in 2017, in India.
There are a lot of positives to take home for Indians, starting with the simple fact that many of these kids are just two years into their teens. They need seasoning and as long as they do it together, Indian football will be safe. Everyone watching this performance, and the ones that preceded it, will agree.
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Then again, when the boys were trying to make history, there weren’t many back home who were actually tuned in to be capable of making judgements on this young bunch.
According to the livestream broadcaster, at the time of the India-South Korea quarterfinal clash, 56,000 people were tuned in, watching FC Goa take on North East United FC (NEUFC) in the Indian Super League (ISL). There were no numbers available for the U-16 match, and one gets a feeling that it was considerably less. So much for footballing priorities in India!
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