For Amarjit Singh Khiyam and the 21-member India U-17 squad, the long wait is over. In April 2015, German Nicolai Adam was appointed as coach. He stressed on the need for foreign exposure. Since then they have travelled to four continents and visited 18 countries. Their last visit was to Mexico in August—September.
They have played more than 100 matches and travelled more than 200,000 miles. No team in the history of Indian football has been so well prepared. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has spent a colossal Rs 15 crore on their preparations, which includes the salaries of Adam and coach Luis de Norton Mattos of Portugal appointed in March 2017.
They have overcome psychological barriers of stage fright or being overawed by better built foreign opposition. The creative midfielder from Assam, Komal Thatal became the first Indian to score a goal against mighty Brazil in the BRICs Cup in October 2016. This Indian U-17 team has reached many such landmarks. But more have to be reached when action begins. Their performance can make or mar Indian football’s future.
Most of the players in the squad are from humble backgrounds and have the fire in their belly as success can lead to a professional career and upward special mobility. Football and poverty co-exist not only in Brazil and Africa but also India.
Midfielder Abhijit Sarkar’s father pulls a rickshaw in Chinsurah, Bengal. Tall defender Anwar Ali’s father grazes cattle in Punjab and tenacious Jitendra Singh’s father is a watchman in new Alipore, Kolkata. Sanjeev Stalin’s mother sells clothes at a Bangalore footpath. The skipper’s parents sell fish in Imphal and midfielder Jeakson Singh has an ailing father and is dependent on his mother, who sells vegetables in the market. Another midfielder from Manipur Ninthoi lost his father two months ago and lives in a two-room tin-roofed shack. Only goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh and midfielder Suresh Singh and the two recruits from overseas, Sunny Dhaliwal (Canada) and Namit Deshpande (USA) are from middle-class families.
As dusk descends on Delhi on Friday 6 October, deep lying midfielder Amarjit will be India’s first World Cup captain in their first match versus USA in the FIFA U-17 World Cup at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Delhi. The 10 other players, who will walk out proudly in front of the Prime Minister, Narender Modi, the FIFA secretary Fatima Samouri and the president of the AFC Sheikh Salman, will also be the first Indians to play in a World Cup. History will always remember them fondly. But their on-field performances will decide whether India, the sleeping giants of international football, have finally awoken.
Many are however unaware that India’s tryst with World Cup destiny should have commenced a little over 67 years ago in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. India had qualified for the 1950 World Cup and were placed in group III. They would have started their campaign against Paraguay on 25 June, 1950 and their league fixtures would have finished by 3 July. Other teams in the group were Italy and Sweden. The late Padma Shri Sailen Manna would have been the first Indian captain in the World Cup. By a quirk of fate, the last possible living member of the team that could have made it to the 1950 World Cup — legendary dribbler Ahmed Khan — died on 3 September this year at the age of 91 years.
There are many reasons for the 1950 World Cup withdrawal. The popular myth is that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) declined as most of the Indian stars played barefoot and it was felt they would be out of depth if as per FIFA rules they would have played with boots. The AIFF was worried that against professional teams, India would lose heavily and it would mar the reputation they earned in the 1948 London Olympics (lost narrowly 1-2 to France). Other factors such as paucity of foreign exchange and the long journey by ship forced India to pull out of this tournament.