Sunday , April 21 2024

India’s AFC U-17 Asian Cup campaign ends, but the dream lives on!

India may have been knocked out of the AFC U-17 Asian Cup in the Group Stage, but their performance in the last match against defending champions Japan gave hope to football fans across the country.

Having gone down 0-3 in the first half of their last match of Group D against Japan, India produced a fantastic performance after the breather, taking the game to their opponents at the Rajamangala National Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand. However, Japan’s quality shone through in the end, as they won 8-4, netting a goal each in the 7th and 8th minutes of the injury time.

So what changed in the second half? A simple mindset, says head coach Bibiano Fernandes.

“I’m so happy with the character that the boys showed in the second half against Japan. At half time, we all spoke and decided to completely put the first half result behind us. Yes, we were down 0-3, but it’s more difficult when you have that in mind,” said Fernandes. “We decided that we just wanted to try and win the second half.”

And that instantly worked. Two minutes into the second half, Mukul Panwar connected with a free-kick by Vanlalpeka Guite to score India’s first goal, something that showed India that the mighty Japan can be messed with.

“We knew about the quality of the opponents. They are the defending champions, and sometimes it was so difficult to just execute the plans that we had brought to the game,” said Fernandes. “They simply overpowered our plans in the first half.

“We were trying to stop their play in the midfield in the first half, but after the break, we tried pushing even further. We put three in the front to press their defence, and then three more behind them to pick up the scraps, and the boys responded brilliantly,” said Fernandes. “To come back like that against an opposition of such high quality is a positive result for us.”

For the Blue Colts players, it was a bittersweet night. They all had a unified dream of taking India to the FIFA U-17 World Cup, a dream that ended at the final whistle. Tears flowed out of the corner of many moist eyes. Fernandes, as he approached his players to console them, was met with a barrage of apologies. “I’m sorry we could not do it, coach. We could not fulfil the dream.”

It was only after that, that the team realised what they had done. The few dozens of Indian fans who were in the massive Rajamangala Stadium, rushed down to the lowest tier and gave a standing ovation to the boys, who headed towards them to show their appreciation of the support.

Goalscorer Danny Meitei could not believe that such a positive reaction could come from the stands despite losing a match.

“I didn’t know what to feel. We had lost, but I know we had played well. It was only when I saw the fans cheering us after the match, that we realised how special our performance in the second half was,” said Danny. “That leaves me wondering what could have happened, had we done the same in the first half, what could have happened if we had done it in the previous two matches?”

Goalkeeper Sahil Poonia, despite conceding eight goals, had a stellar day under the bar, making countless saves, including a thwarted penalty in the second half.

“It’s never easy to see your opponents score so many goals against you, but such was the quality of Japan. But we just tried to keep all the disappointments away from our minds and carry on attacking them,” said Sahil.

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