BY SWAPNANEEL PARASAR Follow @Swapyo on Twitter
"Thirty football fields", proclaimed Dominique Wacalie, proudly sat taking questions from the media as the head coach of New Caledonia at the 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup, when asked how many football grounds does the tiny Pacific nation with a surface area of 18,576 square kilometres really have.
A country roughly a quarter of the size of the state of Assam, what it lacks in area and population, the former national team player, Wacalie made up in humility and ambition. "It is historic! France have great talented players and it is an exceptional opportunity for us. Hopefully, this will set the platform for France-based New Caledonian youngsters to pursue their football careers for the nation", the 35-year-old said ahead of their match with the Les Bleuets on Sunday.
Only a year remains before the 268,000-odd New Caledonians vote for or against independence from France. But until then, the archipelago very much remains a 'Special Collectivity of France'. The mood in the 'rival' camp, however, was that of poise and diligence, reflecting that of the steep elite cultures of Clairefontaine - France's national academy where a host of talents have emerged including the to-be costliest teenager in Kylian Mbappe.
Lionel Rouxel suggested that it will be a strong and emotional match, given the ties between the two teams of whom the most famous crossover remains Christian Karembeu - a '98 World Cup winner himself.
"They will have a lot of ambition, so it is not easy to play teams like these. We will have to show them on the ground", the French head coach meant business straightaway. However, the heat and humidity factor loomed large as to how will the players who belong to well-recognised clubs like Paris Saint Germain and Olympique Lyon adapt to.
"Our boys came from conditions where it was twenty degrees Celsius to this extreme humidity. It is a challenge which we have to cope and adapt and I am sure the players will manage", sounded Rouxel like a no-nonsense schoolmaster whose only ambition was to make his wards be the best, come whatever may.
The croissants and cheese gave way to some salsa and tortillas as Honduras' coach Jose Valladares started to speak of his will to win the competition. However, those words did not hold much ground after he stressed on how complicated the group is and how only detailed analysis of the opponent can save their day against Japan.
Focus then shifted to Emilio Campos and his choice of allegiance. "My Dad was born in Honduras, my Mother was born in Mexico and I was born in the States", the 17-year-old laughed off in his North Carolina accent but the NV Ocotlan (UdeG) player in the 3rd professional division at the Liga MX (Mexico) will proudly wear the armband and lead Los Catrachos come Sunday.
Yoshiro Moriyama showed the true Japanese way of honest assessment and blatantly commented on their dim hopes of lifting the cup. "We are simply not on that level but the Japanese Football Association (JFA) has invested a lot into this lot of boys and they should be ready to go further than the quarterfinals" (the most Japan have advanced into this competition's history - that too only twice).
With much attention being paid to former FC Barcelona player Takefusa Kubo, the 'Japanese Messi', Moriyama suggested that it is a plus point given his other attackers will be offered free spaces on a platter.
Footballing stories so diverse, it is only apt that the all-new refurbished Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium plays host to five of the group's six games at the gateway of North-eastern India, Guwahati.