U17 World Cup Diaries: A night of historic proportions in New Delhi

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On a night when history was created in India's football landscape, emotions swung aplenty at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in New Delhi...

One of the things you always look out for in the role of a sports correspondent is the opportunity of watching something truly special - a moment of greatness to cherish forever safe in the knowledge that you were there.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything as such when I arrived at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in New Delhi for match day four of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. Gradually though, as the evening progressed, that sense of something special around the corner waiting to happen managed to grow on me.

For starters, there was a general buzz around the stadium which had been missing on the opening day. Fans were in full voice long before India was even scheduled to play.

The evening progressed nicely. The United States beat Ghana by a solitary goal in an evenly contested match that was fiercely fought by both sides.

That was just the entrée though; the main dish was yet to be served. The swarm of fans pouring into the stadium increased as that match wore on. Empty blue coloured seats gave the vast stands an ugly look in the first match but come the time for the hosts to take the pitch, those seats retained that same colour, only this time it was the jerseys adorned by the masses of school children that lent it that shade.

In theory Luis Norton and his band of boys didn’t stand a chance. Even the Portuguese’s pre-match press conferences had betrayed a tone of working hard not to lose, a victory being a distant dream.

Against the United States on opening day, India had looked very much the hosts who had only qualified to youth football’s biggest prize by virtue of winning the bid.

That game could very well have been described as a battle of men against boys. 

Norton’s boys had looked tame and fragile against the Americans who were on another level physically when compared to the Indians.

On this night though, the Indians looked much the part as the Portuguese made wholesome changes to the squad with the side bearing much of an aerial presence on the pitch.

The crowd was behind the team in a way it was not for much of the opening night. There were clearly greater numbers in the stand and that showed in the decibel levels of the night.

The falling masses of insects from the massive floodlights of the stadium straight onto our laptops at the press box notwithstanding, the night displayed an aura of a host team backed in true spirit by a band of passionate supporters.

There was no melody in the chants nor was there any symphony for it was all just a cacophony of uncoordinated noises but it worked.

Every tackle by an Indian defender, and there were many, was cheered as if it was but a sublime goal. Norton had pleaded with the crowd to be the twelfth man and it clearly had not fallen on deaf ears.

That energy fed itself onto the players who had started the match with a greater belief themselves. For long periods of the match, India went toe-to-toe with the much more skilled and experienced Colombia, for brief moments, they even outshone the Latin Americans.

The boys had clearly taken Norton’s philosophy of not wanting to lose to their hearts. On this night, they would not be beaten come what may. The opponents might have been much better in every technical aspect but through sheer force of will and determination, Norton’s boys were making everyone notice that India belonged to this stage.

The Colombian post would be rattled, their forwards denied through last ditch tackles and some heroic saves and their coach would be forced to make two tactical substitutions straight after half-time to change the tide.

This was not something India had witnessed on the opening night for this was a completely transformed beast. The South Americans would take the lead right after the interval and I begin to dread a sense of the familiar.

Surely the floodgates would open now just like it had against the USA, surely those spirits would be broken.

India had after all fought so hard just to stay in the match, what response could they have for going behind? That question was answered soon after. India were not going to down tools but instead the intensity would only begin to grow.

For much of the match they had defended as if their lives depended on it, only this time they would attack as if there was no tomorrow.

Aniket Jadhav and Nongdamba Naorem were brought on as a last throw of the dice by Norton and they immediately transformed India’s attacking verve. Namit Deshpande and Anwar Ali had been lions at the heart of India’s defence while Jeakson Singh and Ninthoinganba Meetei had been like terriers let loose in the midfield pouncing on any second ball to put the hosts on the front foot.

Together it all became to forge an infectious concoction that was inevitably going to poison Colombia’s lead in the match.

The clock ticked down, the window to equalize growing smaller with each passing second.

And then it happened - that moment of pure ecstasy and delirium in equal measure engulfed one and all in the stadium.

India had scored. Jeakson Singh, the tall Manipur midfielder, had towered above the Colombian defence like a giant to head home Sanjeev Stalin’s corner into the back of the net sending the crowd into an unbridled state of pure joy.

Laptops and diaries were swept aside in the press box, not one journo was on their seat. The band of reporters to my left looked more like the passionate supporters one would find in the fierce Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.

A new chapter had been written in the history of the world’s most popular sport in a country of over a billion. It might have been only a goal in the end but just like Neil Armstrong’s small step being a giant one for mankind, this was a momentous occasion for Indian football.

Jeakson Singh had written himself into the history books as the country’s first ever goal scorer in a FIFA World Cup across any age-group. The goal had the deafening tone of promise of much more - that India can dream to make its own indent in the game.

And suddenly you realize you were there to witness that occasion as a sense of pride and achievement begins to creep up on you.

India would be level on merit with a South American nation imbibed with a rich history in football. That moment would last all but a minute for they would be behind again soon. Perhaps caught in the emotions of achieving the unthinkable, a defensive lapse would be pounced on by the opponent to break Indian hearts once again.

But they would not be broken for too long. The infallible spirit of Indian’s U17 stars would be clear for all to see.

Norton would prod his soldiers at the end of the full time whistle to join him in exulted arms as they marched towards the fiercest section of India’s support.

The Portuguese remarked at his post match press conference of going to sleep peacefully in the knowledge that his boys had given it their all, that there was nothing more he could have asked of them.

That sentiment will most certainly be shared by many who witnessed the game, whether live or on television.

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One day we can all perhaps look fondly back at this particular night as the moment where it all kicked off for India in modern football, the dawn of a new era of sorts.

Jeakson Singh might have just turned into an overnight hero but that accolade should be shared between all the boys who gave their every last ounce of strength and willpower to create something truly special.

It was a historic night indeed at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium and I was there. The flame of a football revolution has just been lit and may it never extinguish anytime soon.

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