With years of anticipation and preparation building up to its first ever FIFA tournament, India is finally all set to play host to the Under-17 World Cup in October.
A few days ago, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced the final squad for the country’s first ever foray in any football World Cup.
21 of the finest Under-17 starlets from a nation have been thrust the responsibility of carrying the flag and expectations of over a billion people. Among them is one particular teenager named Rahim Ali from Barrackpore near Kolkata.
The town was the setting of Mangal Pandey’s rebellion against the British in 1857, an incident many credit as the start of India’s fight-back against colonial rule.
Barrackpore could be making headlines soon for sporting reasons when Rahim takes the field for India against the USA on October 6.
A product of the Mohun Bagan youth team whom he joined in 2013, Rahim played in the Nursery League for a year in 2014-15. His potential for the national team was first spotted in the Coca Cola Under-15 Cup (East Zone) in 2014 when he was representing West Bengal.
West Bengal would defeat Jharkhand 2-0 in the finals for the East Zone with Rahim bagging the man-of-the-match for his performance in December 2014. It was here his potential would be spotted by an AIFF scout, leading to an invitation to attend trials for the national team in Goa.
Rahim was inducted into the AIFF Elite Academy after his performance in the trials. This was before Nicolai Adam had been tasked with preparing India’s team for the premier event. The German has since parted ways with the AIFF in acrimonious circumstances with the responsibility of guiding India’s young talents now in the hands of Portuguese coach Luis Norton de Matos.
A change in coaches can lead to a change in philosophy and playing-style for teams but the Bengal youngster is not too fussed about the difference.
“I don’t worry or think about what or how the coach conducts his practice. I am more concerned about my work and that I give my best to learn from every practice session. My job is to do hard work,” he says.
The level-headed boy has no qualms about the pressure and extra attention that the prospect of being amongst India’s first ever World Cup participants in their own backyard brings.
“I don’t think too much about it. I have the belief that if I get the ball in the right areas, I can do something. I do not let negative thoughts affect me. I have belief in my ability,” Rahim says.
It is a good thing that the youngster has supreme belief in his abilities, for they were at one point questioned.
One of the first players to be drafted into the initial Under-17 squad, Rahim was demoted to the B team in 2016 by Adam. He was also not part of the AFC Under-16 Championships.
The B team would eventually shut down and Rahim would be shifted to the India Under-19’s under the supervision of Floyd Pinto, his dreams of a World Cup appearance were fast slipping away.
A demotion like this would have disheartened any youngster but the 17-year-old kept plugging away regardless of the circumstances.
“I was never in a bad mood over my demotion into the B team. I always believed in my ability. My mummy and papa would speak to me daily and keep me motivated. I would always think of them.
“I knew that if I persist and keep giving strong performances and learn from every training session, there is a chance for me to play for India at the World Cup,” Rahim says about that experience.
In the end, perseverance along with a dash of luck meant the forward’s hopes of wearing the Indian jersey at the World Cup were reignited when Norton took over the reins of the team earlier this March.
The 63-year-old Portuguese demanded a relook at the discarded youngsters along with the search of new faces as he conducted fresh trials for the national team.
“I got a call from the manager saying that since the new coach has come in, he will hold fresh trials and this is the final opportunity for you to make it into the World Cup squad. The new coach liked my game and thankfully, I am now part of the squad.
"My personal dream was to play in the World Cup. Now let's see what happens in the tournament," he mentioned.
He also highlighted that Norton alongwith Abhishek Yadav, the India Under-17 COO, have been important figures the players look up to for advice and direction.
"Norton sir and Abhishek sir are very senior. They always share their experiences about how life was back then when they were of our age. We certainly learn from their experience as it helps us on a day-to-day basis. It helps us cope with any difficulties that we are going through," he pointed.
Rahim is one of the two strikers picked by Norton in the final squad for the tournament along with Maharashtra boy Aniket Jadhav. The starlet’s determination has been a factor in his selection and the very same grit will be on display when India make their World Cup bow at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi on October 6.