Heartbreaks are common in teenage years. This one, though, will take quite some time to recover from for the India under-17 players. Coach Luis Norton de Matos offered a simple explanation for the rare brain freeze his team suffered. “Their dream just came true and they did not know how to control emotions immediately after that,” de Matos said. The ‘dream’ came true in the 82nd minute.
Sanjeev Stalin swung in a corner. Jeakson Thounaojam snuck between the two tall Colombian defenders, leapt over them and nodded it past goalkeeper Kevin Mier. The net bulged. Decibels soared. Just like that, there was an Indian goal at the Under-17 World Cup. An emotionally charged night just went a little more out of control.
Dheeraj Singh fell to the ground, arms spread. Anwar Ali was on his knees, reciting a small player. And Jeakson could easily have run the fastest sprint on the athletics track that separates the players and fans. De Matos celebrated like a teenager in the dugout.
He was right. This felt like a dream. More so because they were ruthlessly jolted back to reality. The most common football cliché is that teams are vulnerable immediately after scoring. In India’s case, they were inviting trouble. The players were still celebrating Jeakson’s equaliser when Colombia dashed forward straight from the restart.
Juan Penaloza took advantage of central defender Anwar Ali being out of position, calmly controlled a through ball and slotted it past Dheeraj. There wasn’t going to be another comeback. Not just because they were exhausted physically. But this had been an emotionally draining night for this bunch of millennials.
The 2-1 defeat to Colombia puts India on the brink of an early exit from the Under-17 World Cup. But no one was talking about it. That they had the South American giants on the mat for prolonged periods in the match surprised many. India hit the bar once, had one-on-one opportunities twice and even had a goal ruled out.
“We were struggling at the beginning,” Colombia coach Orlando Restrepo admitted. “We were forced to make many tactical adjustments.” India did as well. De Matos fielded a very different starting 11 compared to the USA game. This was a taller, more physical line-up he chose. In defence, US-born centre-back Namit Deshpande replaced Jitendra Singh, who was guilty of conceding a penalty against USA. Rahul KP, the most versatile player on the field, was employed on the left flank in place of the injured Komal Thatal while Boris Thangjam returned to the team as right-back. Jeakson, the surprise omission in the previous game, too returned to the squad.
This was an attack-minded line-up and it showed from the kick-off. India did not sit back, like they did against the USA. There was no tentativeness. Neither were they intimidated by the reputation of their opponents. They were purposeful and fearless, which surprised Colombia.
They first tried to exploit India’s perceived flaw on the right. Boris is one of the best players in the team but has a tendency to move out of his position and play upfield. At 5’2”, he is also one of the smallest players in the team. Colombia forward Leandro Campaz’s thighs were as big as Boris’s waist. Colombia managed to take advantage of his poor physique, but Boris is fast. He would quickly track down Campaz, steal the ball and play it diagonally to Rahul on the left.
That was the template for most Indian attacks and Rahul looked more incisive and composed than Thatal on the left wing. He gelled well with Jeakson and Amarjit, who constantly fed delightful balls to the forwards. India had less possession in the first half compared to their previous match but had more meaningful attacks.
Striker Abhijit Sarkar had a shot saved in the 15th minute after playing a one-two with Boris, the best chance India got in the first half. It ended goalless and the frustration on Colombian faces was apparent as they walked back to the dressing room.
They came out stronger in the second and Penalosa scored immediately after the restart, taking advantage of Sanjeev Stalin’s poor marking on the left.
As was the case against USA, the goal woke up India from their slumber. The midfield and forward line put up a much-improved performance, which finally led to India opening its goal-scoring account.
But Penalosa’s opportunistic strike a minute after Jeakson equalised broke the home team’s heart. It was cruel in particular on Ali. He hadn’t put a foot wrong all night once again. Colombia coach Orlando Restrepo singled him and Deshpande out as the best Indian performers. De Matos was once again left to rue what could’ve been. “2-1 against the US would have been an ideal result. Tonight, 2-1 looks a bit harsh, But that’s football,” he said.