INDIAN FOOTBALL SUFFERS from a certain confluence of circumstances when it comes to big tournaments.
With the Indian senior teams making it to Asian Cups and India hosting U-17 World Cups, we're now used to seeing us appearing in some of the biggest stages of the sport and rubbing shoulders with world beaters.
But when it comes to judging the performance of the team, we're quickly reminded that our country is still but a guest in the big leagues. And with our teams practically expected to bow out early in the tournament, judging them by the scoreline feels almost unfair.
This is especially true for the junior teams. Our sixteen year olds, dwarfed by their opponents in size as well as training and experience, are every bit like the awkward kid in a college party. Their accolades, like the seniors they look up to, are limited to "participants," and even that little credit ultimately belongs to the Federation who won the hosting rights in the first place, as we're reminded every time the players express their scripted thanks to the AIFF, the FIFA, the state government and anyone else who contributed to their opportunity; their privilege.
How, then, should we judge the performance of an Indian team going up against a women's football powerhouse like USA? The American U-17 women's team aren't world champions like their seniors, but they make it to the World Cup regularly. There's been a consistency in quality over the years. And a lot of participation at the grassroots levels, thanks to a high number of college scholarships being available in the sport.
Compared to that, the Indian team was assembled not long ago, off trials. There's no proper youth system for them to rise up through. The participation by girls in football at the grassroots level remains minuscule compared to every other nation in the tournament.
So other than showcasing and promoting the sport hoping to inspire future generations of players, what's the objective that the India U-17 women's team is supposed to pursue?
Head coach Thomas Dennerby had put on the usual brave face. "The match always starts from 0-0", he said. But coming into the game, both teams clearly had different things in mind.
US head coach Natalia Astrain felt confident enough to bench her captain Mia Bhuta, to save her for Brazil; the most challenging game of the group. She was looking at a competition for the second place with Morocco. India to her was an assured win.
For India, the 4-5-1 was looked more ambiguous on paper than necessary. It was obvious that the midfield was geared towards dropping down. But it didn't matter once the match started. Soon it became more about defending with 10 players anyway.
India had one spark of brilliance early on in the game. It was a long ball from Nitu Linda, chased by a rather hopeful Neha. But in a rare mistake, the two defenders on the ball fumbled due to a momentary miscommunication, and Neha was through, right between them, into the box with the ball. It was one-on-one with the keeper. But Neha could not fire the finisher.
And that was it. Next minute, USA took charge of the situation. Melina Rebimbas was particularly active in the middle, creating two early chances for her teammates through impeccable ball distribution. But she was left unmarked. And just 9 minutes in, it was she who found the net, and got the floodgates open.
The second goal came from a corner. When Charlotte Suarez leapt up in the Indian box, she soared a foot above the blue shirts surrounding her, nodding the ball into the net. It looked too easy.
By the time Oneyka Gamero scored and Rebimbas got her second of the night, the US bench barely celebrated. When Gisele Thompson made it 5-0, they stayed on their seats. It was still barely 40 minutes in.
The crowd was cheering every regular save, interception and directionless long ball from India. Anything to motivate the girls. But the celebratory mood in the air, which peaked with the pre-match fireworks extravaganza, was long gone.
Earlier that day, Morocco played their heart out against Brazil. They lost 1-0, but the result was so good in their eyes, the players were celebrating after the match.
A respectable result, or a show of spirit on the field, the kind of saving grace that forms the more romantic part the underdog story, was not in the fate of the Indian team.
There was no comeback effort of note. No solo breakaway run to claim one goal, one moment of sweet victory, for keepsake. One little happy memory for everyone's first World Cup game.
Instead, it was 45 more minutes of USA dominance. The school students in matching uniforms, bussed in to form much of the crowd, were happy to dance to the DJ's music which was perhaps more suited for a wedding, despite the humiliating scoreline. On the field though, the heartbreak was too real. And without respite.
It was 6-0 soon after the game started. Another header off a corner. Ella Emri was so much taller than the player guarding her, she might well have been standing on a stool. Then it was a penalty that Taylor Suarez calmly converted. Then it was Mia Bhuta, who had come on after half-time, who swung her left foot from outside the box and found the net.
After this, the USA team sort of loosened their hold. They moved around, keeping possession, not overly threatening. They were conserving energy for the next game, their real test. And that's what saved India from a double digit loss. The match ended 0-8, with the Indian players dejected and resigned to their fate.
So, how do we evaluate a performance like this? You can't say "fought hard but lost," like 2017. There was no fight. Only one way traffic. Other than the penalty, India barely even committed any fouls to stop their opponents. It was a display of broken spirit.
Should we wait for a redemption story? Will it be Morocco who will let a goal through, turning it into the story of the tournament for Indian fans, giving birth to a future fan favourite?
Or should the story be about a botched attempt at team building? Should it be about a premature hosting of a tournament by an AIFF administration so hell-bent on having self-aggrandazing events that they decided to put an Indian team into the World Cup before even launching women's youth leagues? Who hacked together a team that barely got to reach its potential through short exposure tours, putting them at a lot more disadvantage than their male counterparts back in 2017?
Perhaps none of the above. Perhaps the story should be about a moment that took place on the field more than an hour before kick-off, when the Indian team walked onto the pitch for the first time.
Cheered on by the fans, taking in the atmosphere of the occasion they spent so many months training for, the team had their happiest moment of the day. They were high fiving each other, and having group hugs on the field.
Their prolonged wait for this game, caught up in practice matches and training in isolation far away from their families and friends, was further hampered by a hundred roadblocks including a pandmeic and an ugly incident involving an assistant coach. For those teenagers, many of whom came from some of the most underprivileged backgrounds imaginable, the World Cup must have started to seem like a faraway mirage that they were chasing in vain.
But when they walked out, in the decked up stadium with the fans present, it finally became real for them. They had made it. That was the fulfillment.
And perhaps, given the circumstances, that was the goal subconsciously put before them as well. To show up, and participate. Make the photoshoot opportunities for politicians and officials happen.
Althought it was a dream come true for the players, one needs to take this as a reality check for Indian football.
There are many ways of promoting a sport. But putting an underprepared, under-built team out there to lose by big margins is not the kind of advertisement that inspires youngsters to take up the sport.
If these incredibly precious opportunities are to mean something for Indian football, they need to be earned the right way.
A proper women's league, robust youth systems, high participation from popular clubs to attract more fans... these are some minimum requirents that the AIFF needs to fulfill before they even think about hosting another women's world cup. Because as things stand, Indian football is the polar opposite of what a gender equal sport is supposed to look like.
The irony is, if India want to qualify for a World Cup without hosting it, the senior women's team is our best bet by far. We've got multiple women footballers playing in clubs abroad, and none of the men. But they are still given a second class treatment by AIFF when it comes to building and managing the sport.
Unless that changes, we're doomed to be humiliated just like this, out of depth and drained of all fighting spirit, on a world stage we never earned the right to enter in the first place.
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