India takes on the US today in an historic first for the nation. At 2000hrs, 11 Indian boys square up against their bigger (in most cases), better trained and more experienced opponents. So who are the eleven players likely to be? What are their attributes? Do they play better in the air, defend more, or attack? Will they be any match for nations that have invented, defined and then redefined modern football? There are no easy answers to these questions.
The team that Luis Norton de Matos has assembled is both talented and fortunate. As amateur athletes, they have received the best training that the nation could afford. They have starred in countless photoshoots, social media campaigns for the largest motorcycle company in the world and a sportswear brand that is a global household name. They are the only junior team in India that has been discussed in hundreds of media outlets—digital, TV, print—ranging from vernacular dailies to international magazines.
They have also seen a lot more of the world than any of them would have dreamt just 3-4 years ago. Many have polished their language skills—in both English and Hindi—and are now trilingual. Trilingual because, interestingly enough, the first team to represent India at a World Cup is the complete antithesis to the dominant political narrative prevalent in the country at the moment. Jitendra Singh is the only member of the team who’s first language is Hindi. And even he lives in Kolkata and represents Bengal. The others are native speakers of Manipuri, Bengali, Punjabi, Kannada, Marathi, Mizo and Malayalam. For those of us whose perception of India is limited to the Hindi-speaking Indo-Gangetic plain, this Indian team will be an eye-opener.
And yet, most of the country has not even seen them play a game. By 2200 this evening that last part will have changed. So as we prepare for this latest milestone on India’s path to footballing success here are the XI that we think will step onto the field in the new light blue and orange that are India’s home colours. The FIFA Under 17 World Cup is finally here.
Goalkeeper: Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem,
India’s No. 1 is slightly on the smaller side, for a goalkeeper. At a lean 181cms, he does not, yet, have the physical presence to dominate the box. But, Dheeraj has been groomed for a leadership role at the back. Given the superiority of the opposition, Dheeraj is likely to be called upon regularly over the next six days. The good news is that he is a serious keeper with tremendous agility, speed and reflexes. Dheeraj’s shot-stopping ability is beyond question. Today it will be more about his ability to hold the team together, organise the defensive setup and make sure the team keep their shape from the back. It will not be easy in front of 60,000 home fans at a packed Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. But expect a mature and collected performance from the boy from Moirang, on the periphery of the stunning Loktak Lake.
On the bench: Prabhsukhan Singh Gill (Punjab), Sunny Dhaliwal (Toronto, Canada)
Centre Backs: Jitendra Singh and Anwar Ali
Physicality was an important attribute in the selection process for both these central defenders from Bengal and Punjab, respectively. Over the past few weeks they have had relentless drills working on their ability to deal with the opposition pinging crosses into the box. With limited information about the Indian team out there, one fact that most opponents will count on is the relatively smaller build of some of our players. India’s job will be to ensure that the opposition’s strikers feel a constant presence that cannot not be easily brushed aside. Defence has, for long, been the weakest link in India’s national teams. The senior squad has set an example in the recent past by putting in a couple of strong performances based on resolute and organised defending. Their junior colleagues will need to do the same.
On the bench: Namit Deshpande (NRI whose family is based in the US)
Wing backs: Hendry Antonay and Sanjeev Stalin
The two Karnataka boys are likely to start on either side of defence due to the suspension of Boris Singh for the first match. Boris, a dynamo with skill, pace and intelligence in equal measure, will be missed by a squad in which he has been a regular. But, in his absence lies an opportunity for the team to show its bench strength. Antonay, who models his game on Brazilian defender Dani Alves, will likely start on the right. Stalin, one of three 2001-born players in the team, is also the deadball specialist. His goal against the UAE (hyperlink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsPUjoMlDNs) in the AFC Under-16 championships in Goa was a fine example of how this team can do some damage from set pieces.
Midfield: Komal Thatal, Suresh Wangjam, Amarjit Kiyam, Khumanthem Ninthoinganba
The core of the team comes from the small Meitei community of Manipur. With a total population that is about the same as that of Lucknow, Manipur has produced a disproportionate number of athletes for India over the years. The state has eight players on the team including captain (central midfielder) Amarjit, and holding midfielder Suresh. Khumanthem, the youngest of the 21, will start on the right flank. On the left will Sikkim’s Komal Thatal, who Bhaichung Bhutia singled out as one to watch. It is a technically gifted midfield that will fight for every ball and work tirelessly to create even the smallest opportunity. India’s transition from defence to attack and back to defence, will depend substantially on the hearts, minds and lungs of these four.
On the bench: Lalengmawia (Mizoram), Nongdamba Naorem and Mohammad Shahjahan (both Manipur), Rahul KP (Kerala).
Forwards: Aniket Jadhav and Abhijit Sarkar
From traditional footballing centres, Kolhapur and West Bengal, India’s starting strikers have a massive responsibility. One of our consistent difficulties has been converting chances despite some very good buildup play. Head coach Luis Norton de Matos, with his staff, has been working hard with the strikers in training and the hope is that the highly skilled Jadhav and Sarkar will be able to keep their composure when opportunities arise.
On the bench: Rahim Ali (Bengal), Jaekson Thounaojam (Manipur)
The squad is full of individual talent. But it will only do well if the team works as a unit from back to front. Football is, bottom-line, about scoring goals. Win or lose, let’s hope these boys can at least find the back of the net. Every goal India score will go a million miles towards securing the future of the sport in the country.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick