The author represented India from 1998-2011. He is currently heading the Football Players’ Association of India
My first takeaway from the FIFA Under 17 World Cup final was that the two best tactical teams played the final. Of course, in my heart, I wanted Mali to make through based on the free-flowing, attacking style of football those boys played. But that would have been different from the reality of modern football on the global stage. The proof of this came from the two semifinals. When was the last time you saw Spain playing a defensive, counterattacking game? In my memory, never. But against Mali that was the only gameplay that could have worked. And the Spanish boys executed it perfectly. Mali were playing the way they had through the tournament—they even had 29 shots on the Spanish goal. They had plenty of the ball and went for an all-out attacking style. But against a side as tactically well-drilled as Spain, you do not have any chance playing that way.
For England, the story was similar. Against Brazil, in the semis, they looked organised and comfortable on the ball. We often talk about Brazilian footballers and way they are on the ball, but in this game the English players clearly looked more relaxed and at ease. You can see this from the buildup to the goals. The comfort came from being organised at the back, strong in the middle of the pitch and capable of finishing chances. When they had the ball they looked to open the game up and create space and move forward. Without the ball, each player reverted to his defensive role. They closed out the gaps and refused the Brazilians any space. Of course, Rhian Brewster was great. He has the makings of a good striker. His timing of the run, ability to make space even in a crowded box and decent finishing led to back-to-back hattricks. But a lot of this came from the confidence that the other 10 players on the pitch were doing their jobs.
Having watched the tournament closely—I was invited by Sony ESPN and Doordarshan to analyse the games on TV—I had little doubt that the first World Cup final to be played on Indian soil was featuring the perfect examples of modern football teams. And what a game it was. The Spaniards came out strong. They succeeded in their plan in the first 25-30 minutes. Knowing the attacking strength of his English opponents the Spanish coach, Santiago Denia, lined up defensively and hit England hard on the counter. At 2—0 down, it seemed like the game was slipping away from England. England looked a little slow to read and react to Spain when they were defending and Sergio Gomez made no mistake when he thumped in the second into the top left corner across the goalkeeper. Slowly, though, England started to wake up. Steven Sessegnon was establishing control in the centre of the park and Phil Foden looked the most comfortable man on the pitch all evening. Unsurprisingly it was Brewster who began the comeback. Sessegnon put a wonderful ball in from the wing that found the dead of the Liverpool striker perfectly and was too powerful for Alvaro Fernandez in the Spanish goal. At 2—1, just before halftime, the tie was perfectly setup.
The second half was, somewhat surprisingly, all England. Whatever Steve Cooper said to his boys in the break worked wonderfully and they never looked like losing it in the second period. It was a great feather in the cap of the English youth system that has been criticised in the past. Their junior players have now done what the seniors have not come close to. These England players have enhanced their reputation. But there is a lot of work ahead of them. If they want to continue in this vein and have successful professional careers they will need to forget the joy of Oct. 28 very quickly and get back to the training pitch. The reason I say this is simple. Despite having won the World Cup there are no guarantees for these boys. When they get back to their parent clubs—the Manchesters and Chelseas of this world—they will be competing against the biggest names in global football.
Kolkata showed the potential for football in India. It was great occasion and having over 66,000 fans in the ground made it night to remember for all the players. In Europe such a number watching an under 17 game, even if it is a World Cup final, is unimaginable. By setting a new record for attendance Indian fans have shown how much passion there is for the sport. I want to talk here about the support for the game in the Northeast. If even one of these matches were held in states such as Mizoram and Manipur (where 20,000 turn up to see Neroca FC play Northeast United in a preseason friendly) I guarantee that not a single person will stay at home. Football, for us, is number one.
Getting back to the football, I want to add a bit about the Asian teams. It was great to see Iran, Iraq and Japan make it out of the group stages. In fact it was Japan who gave England the closest run, taking them to penalties. They played to their own strengths and with great discipline. It shows how much the game is growing in the continent. That said, there is a gap to be bridged. If we compare even the top Asian sides against those from Europe, South America and Africa, we Asians need to be more comfortable on the ball. Physically, we have shown we can compete. The difference lies in tactics and ability on the ball.
For India it was a good tournament with many positives. But we have a long way to go. Instead of dreaming about unrealistic goals we should take a leaf out of the books of teams like Japan. With more competitive matches—not just for the national team, but at every level. Nursery leagues are the most important. Indian players need to be given credit for their performance. Starting at the age of 13 they looked decent against players who have been at it since the age of six. And when I say playing here I mean competitive matches against other players in their age bracket.
The World Cup was a great way to introduce the world to India’s football scene. But we have to continue putting in the work away from the big stadiums in the big cities. Only when football is played in every corner of our country will be able to truly call ourselves a footballing nation.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.