Tears rolled down India skipper Vikram Pratap Singh's cheeks as he headed for the dressing room after crashing out of the AFC U-16 Championship. In the dugout, Givson Singh and Bekey Oram clutched their faces in despair and agony as their dream to qualify for U-17 World Cup ended.
But back in India, they were already being lauded as heroes who gave their all against an opponent vastly superior to them.
India is taking baby steps towards becoming a force to be reckoned with on the global stage. For the past year or so, the efforts by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) along with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) to provide the best preparation possible for this set of boys has paid off.
Much of the credit goes to Abhishek Yadav, Director of the National Teams, who designed a programme and along with Kushal Das, General Secretary of the AIFF, convinced the SAI and MYAS to sponsor them.
Previously, in a chat with Goal, Bibiano Fernandes, the India U-16 head coach, revealed that the blueprint for serious preparations and exposure tours were chalked out in September 2017 after India qualified for the Championship.
"It was a plan to have the exposure tours to Dubai, Qatar when we qualified (for the AFC U-16 Championship 2018) in September. The AIFF planned that we are going to have exposure tours from January," he elucidated.
Less than a year later, they created history by qualifying for the quarter-final stage of the AFC Championship by battling against quality sides like Indonesia and Iran.
South Korea had launched the Golden Age Programme back in 2014 where players from 12-16 age group were inducted in that scheme. And this U-16 side was the first batch to graduate from the programme.
If the Indian team, with just a year of practice, can show such valour and determination then it will not be far-fetched to think that a concerted long-term backing could see them attain success in the future.
In Niraj Kumar, they have found a safe pair of hands. Against Korea he stood like a wall in the first half and made numerous saves to keep the scoreboard unchanged.
India stuck to their game plan of not allowing any space at the back to the Korean strikers. They were successful in maintaining their shape and put bodies on the line to deny the opposition an opportunity to have a crack at goal from within the box. And whenever India had possession they hoisted it long towards Ridge Dimello who was the focal point of attack.
India's backline which comprised of Gurkirat Singh, Shabas Ahammed, Harpreet Singh and Thoiba Singh remained resilient to thwart Korean attackers. Kim Jung-Soo's men tried to infiltrate through the middle but were left frustrated. They changed their attacking avenue and started using the flanks. But Niraj would claim the crosses before anyone could get their head to it.
While the organisation and discipline in defence was exemplary, India's problem was their lack of co-ordination in attack. It is not a slight on them by any means. It takes time to develop your attack and coach Bibiano was only playing to the team's strength by drilling defensive organisation into them. Ravi Rana and Givson did try their luck with a couple of long-rangers which troubled the Korean goalkeeper.
It took 68 minutes for Korea to break the deadlock who had been scoring for fun in the group stages, pumping 12 goals in three matches. India was unlucky to concede as Niraj had timely got down to stop Minseo's shot on goal but the rebound fell for substitute Jeong Sang-bin who buried the ball from close range.
It was heartening to see that the Blue Colts did not let their shoulders drop after conceding and instead started to grow out of their defensive shell to hunt for the equaliser. But Soo's boys are a tough nut to crack. They are the only side who are yet to concede after 360 minutes of football.
After the match in the mixed zone, a positive Niraj had already taken the loss in his stride and was ready to build on from the lessons he has learned in Malaysia. "Although we lost, we played well. We gave our 100 per cent and we know that we can play better. This is just the start and a single loss cannot dent our determination. We will work hard and do better in the future," said the goalkeeper to Goal.
Even a year ago, football fans in India would not have entertained the thought that any of their national age-group teams would put up such a spirited display against one of the heavyweights of Asian football. But this bunch of boys have instilled a hope and belief among the millions in the country that India could qualify for a FIFA U17 World Cup on merit. The colts are on the right track and with sustained efforts and backing from the concerned parties, this team has the potential to take Indian football a level or two up.