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Wins against Iraq, Argentina show Indian football is on the right path

Both the wins -- the 2-1 victory against Argentina in the COTIF tournament four hours after Iraq were tamed 1-0 in Amman -- were in invitational tournaments but to scoff at them could mean missing the big picture.

football Updated: Aug 07, 2018 21:50 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Indian football,Iran,Argentina
Indian U-20 football team defeated Argentina in the COTIF tournament.(AIFF)

Time will tell whether 10 Indian under-20 boys beating Argentina and an under-16 side defeating Iraq within hours of each other is our football’s ‘Berbice moment’. But then isn’t the theatre of sport founded on hope?

Yes, the comparison could seem a stretch because Berbice gave India their first win against the West Indies in a One-Day International (ODI). Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri, Balwinder Singh Sandhu and Madan Lal were established internationals who took on the mighty men led by Clive Lloyd and, wonder of wonders, won by 27 runs. That was in March 1983. In less than three months, Kapil’s Devils showed that Berbice was no fluke and cricket was never the same again in India.

Both the wins in football -- the 2-1 victory against Argentina was in Spain in the COTIF tournament in the early hours of Monday and came around four hours after Iraq were tamed 1-0 in Amman -- were in invitational tournaments but to scoff at them could mean missing the big picture.

READ: Kapil is once-in-a century cricketer, don’t compare Pandya with him: Gavaskar

Playing with 10 men for 40 minutes, to beat a country that has won the World Cup twice and have been world youth champions six times could seem like it is straight out of the 1981 John Huston film ‘Escape to Victory’. Except that this was real not reel.

No wonder under-20 coach Floyd Pinto was quoted as saying by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) that it was one of the biggest days for football in India.

That India didn’t give up after Deepak Tangri’s fourth minute goal and scored again through Anwar Ali in the 70th when they were playing with 10 men after Aniket Yadav had been shown the red card showed that the team wasn’t overawed. This against a side till recently coached by Lionel Scaloni, who played in the 2006 World Cup, before he took charge of the senior team which returned from a shambolic World Cup campaign, couldn’t have been easy.

Surely, regular international exposure -- eight of those who played on Monday were part of the 2017 Under-17 FIFA World Cup campaign --- and getting them to play in the 2017-18 I-League contributed to India looking Argentina in the eye and making them blink. It also showed what goalie Dheeraj Singh, India’s hero in the under-17 World Cup, missed by leaving the squad to try his luck elsewhere.

The under-16 team which beat the Asian under-17 champions through Bhuvenesh’s goal too has got a lot of international exposure. They have been virtually on the road since January, playing in Europe and Asia. That is how India are preparing for the Asian under-16 finals in Malaysia next month. India, who drew 0-0 with Iraq in the qualifiers, have been grouped with Vietnam, Iran and Indonesia. A semi-finals berth there would mean qualification for the 2019 under-17 World Cup in Peru.

READ: India U-20 football team stuns Argentina in U-20 COTIF Cup football tournament

“We need to start believing in ourselves,” India under-16 coach Bibiano Fernandes told the AIFF website. Sunil Chhetri concurred.

Speaking from Spain where his club Bengaluru FC is training, India skipper Chhetri said: “It is going to do a lot of good to the confidence of the youngsters. The biggest positive though is that they are getting games. Also, the under-16 team dominated possession. That is not very common.”

By 2026, the World Cup will have 48 teams with Asia assured of eight berths. By 2030, many from these under-16 and under-20 players would have made the football journey from boys to men.

There have been many false dawns in India’s football journey since the 1970 Asian Games bronze -- beating UAE 1-0 in 2001, making the quarter-finals of the Asian under-17 championships in 2002, a hat-trick of Nehru Cup triumphs and qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup finals among them --- and this too could eventually be like holding a candle in the wind. But for now, it can be said that the kids are all right.

First Published: Aug 06, 2018 22:01 IST