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FIFA U-17 World Cup: What Friday the 6th Meant for an Indian Football Lover of the '90s

Finally, after almost a decade of being a sports journalist, Friday the 6th arrived, and the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium witnessed something that I haven't in close to three decades of watching Indian football.

Arnab Sen | News18 Sports@arnabsentweet

Updated:October 9, 2017, 8:49 AM IST
FIFA U-17 World Cup: What Friday the 6th Meant for an Indian Football Lover of  the '90s
A file photo of Indian players in action against USA at the JLN Stadium (FIFA/Twitter)
The 1990s was a time of great change for India at many levels. The post liberalisation economy led to an influx of cash at every level of the market and the society. 'Development' began to take place at a very swift pace. Money was the mantra wherever one went and we all slowly became a part of a chain reaction. Money was the society's new haemoglobin, and the middle-class were the red blood cells, increasing at a fast pace.

I was born in one such middle-class Bengali household in New Delhi's Malviya Nagar locality. My earliest recollection of our house is one with a huge verandah, where I played football with my father. We also had a terrace on the first floor, which was my resting place in the evenings, after I had soiled my clothes and spirit while trying to outwit my 'mohalla friends' in a game of cricket or football or sometimes hide 'n' seek. The terrace had a view of, what I now feel, a 'utopian' Delhi, perhaps an idea of my city that now exists only in my dreams. It was a wonderful view, a park in front of our house, small single-storied houses lined with bicycles and 'Bajaj Chetaks' in front of them and the odd Premier Padmini and Vij uncle's red Maruti 800. For me, then, that was Delhi.

Then came the 'haemoglobin effect' and suddenly the view from my terrace changed. Builder flats started coming up and we too became a part of that change. My house from being this open amphitheater, turned into a closed train. It was a plush new three-storied building which everyone seemed to like except me. And then one day my old man took me to the 'new' terrace and showed me the view. It was a new world, I could see a new city and the first thing that stood out for me apart from the Qutab Minar was the facade of the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium.

In the years that followed, I made several trips to the JLN stadium and the Ambedkar stadium to follow the sport that my heart rooted for, football. The 1990s was a difficult period for an Indian kid, who loved football. The Tendulkar mania was sweeping the country and India were on their way to becoming a superpower in cricket. The cable TV revolution meant we could watch the world's best football players showcase their skills on a weekly basis and while that fuelled our hearts with hope, it also discouraged us from following Indian football.

I was a regular at the Ambedkar stadium for the Durand Cup and DCM Cup, till they stayed relevant. Vijayan's guile, Baichung's finishing, Ancheri's crosses, Coutinho's delightful trickery were all part of the annual football fest in the capital. There were the coaches too, who spoke of an era gone by, when India were among the elite in Asian football. Syed Nayeemuddin, Sukhwinder Singh, Subroto Bhattacharjee, Amal Dutta, Shabbir Ali and the likes had a bagful of stories. But Indian football went nowhere.

Perhaps the reason why many of us, who started our sports journalism career as football fellas are now cricket hacks. This again has a direct relationship with the 'haemoglobin effect' that I have mentioned in the first paragraph.

Finally, after almost a decade of being a sports journalist, Friday the 6th arrived, and the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium witnessed something that I haven't in close to three decades of watching Indian football. I wasn't at the stadium, the young 'football fellas' from my team were and while we were all proud of the moment when an Indian team took to the greens in a global footballing event for the first time, my heart sank the moment I saw the big American boys launch attack after attack in the first five minutes. I feared the worst like many of those in the stadium did. Were these young boys going to get mauled in front of these hopeful supporters?

They kept losing possession, there was no pattern or build-up to their play. Goalkeeper Dheeraj Kumar was the only reason why USA had not broken the deadlock in the first half-an-hour, until defender Jitendra Singh suffered a brain snap. USA skipper Josh Sargent must have been praying to get a knock inside the penalty box, since his finishing wasn't up to the mark till then, and Jitendra answered the prayers by literally pulling him down. Sargent coolly slotted home from the spot and the hammering it seemed had just begun.

India were expected to go in a shell and park the bus further to try and avoid a humiliation. But that wasn't the case. By the time the half-time whistle was blown, Aniket Jadhav had managed a shot on goal and Komal Thatal had shown some prowess with the ball at his feet.

But it was all doom and gloom at the beginning of the second half as an unlucky deflection meant Dheeraj was beaten for the second time on the night. USA were ready to dominate but suddenly the 'Blue boys' found some rhythm. Thatal found space behind the US defence and almost embarrassed the on-rushing opposition goal-keeper, but his lob went over the crossbar.

Substitutes Rahim Ali and Naorem provided more breadth and speed to India's attack in the final quarter of regulation time. Wangjam's left-footer struck the head of a USA defender while enroute for the top corner and Anwar Ali's right struck the crossbar, before USA made it 3-0.

There were other moments too, Naorem's runs through the left after coming on for the final 20 minutes and Rahim Ali's through pass to Komal in the 81st, which was swept up by the USA keeper showed signs of what this team has achieved in the last two years of staying together and playing the world over.

The technical prowess is missing largely but what was refreshing to see was the energy on the field. There was a sense of pride in seeing an Indian football team not run out of breath by the time the final whistle was blown.

A 0-3 scoreline didn't do justice to the fight shown by the Indian colts but it did one thing for Indian football lovers of the 90s like me. It rekindled our affection for our first love.

The performance also, for me, gives fodder to the debate on whether the entry of corporate players, who have brought in more money and limelight for Indian football, is taking the game forward or not. After all, football is the biggest sporting money-spinner in the world and a bit of the 'haemoglobin effect' is needed to take the sport ahead in India too. But that is a debate for later.

For now we can bask in the glory of the fact that Luis Norton de Matos' boys have shown the world that India can play football and that is a good enough beginning on a stage as big as this.
| Edited by: Baidurjo Bhose
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