At the full-time whistle, the Indian players collapsed to the ground. They were broken, shellacked. Some faces were streaked with tears. The coach Luis Norton de Matos was shaken too. In a bad mood, if one were to go by his exchanges with the press.
When asked about Komal Thatal’s exclusion for the second game running, Matos responded edgily. “If you think Thatal, with his physique, can play and win duels vs Ghana and Colombia, you are a very good coach.” This raises questions about the winger’s inclusion in the squad. If those doubts existed, why was he picked in the squad for one game? Or did this realisation dawn upon Matos after the opener against the US, despite working with Thatal for months?
But the Thatal question is more important because it leads to larger issues. Over the past week, one has seen what a team that has been haphazardly put together can achieve. It is not Matos’ fault that he was given only seven months to prepare a side that was still being formed. But it does not reflect well on the coach when the basic fundamentals are found lacking.
￼Ghana's Gabriel Leveh controls the ball in their match against India during the FIFA U-17 World Cup. AP
On Thursday night, one would have had to forage for positives in a trash pit. India were outclassed by Ghana.
Outmanoeuvred too. The Ghanaians had already shown their tactical astuteness in the first two games. But their physical advantage had not been as obvious until the final group game. Ghana towered above India, literally and metaphorically.
As the hosts fell away physically in the second period, the Black Starlets exploited the gaps. The 0-4 scoreline was a fair reflection of the proceedings. It could have been worse. “I think we could have scored more. I don’t know why but they did not pose any threat to our players today. They didn’t come to the party like previous matches.” Those were the words of Samuel Fabin, the Ghana head coach.
Fabin also said something that should be worth remembering. “In terms of playing fields and infrastructure, India are ahead of Ghana. I think they are far ahead.” Yet, you would not say the same about the countries’ standing in international football. Ghana’s superiority over India is the result of many factors and it will be a question worth discussing when one looks back at the hosts' first World Cup campaign.
On Thursday, though, the difference in quality was particularly glaring. India made four changes to their starting lineup once again with Nongdamba Naorem pencilled on the right flank to add pace. After their frustrating loss to the United States, Ghana made the same number of alterations. The result was an asymmetrical 4-3-3 formation which asked multiple questions of the host.
To India’s credit, they made a spirited beginning in front of 52,614 people at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The noisy attendance drove India forward. But moves broke down as soon as they began. For Ghana, though, a familiar feeling returned. A contentious offside call aside, the Black Starlets continued to be wasteful. Chance after chance came, only for poor decisions to ensure a goal did not arrive.
Ghana had not scored since the first half of their tournament opener against Colombia. The deadlock took 42 minutes to break on Thursday. Sadiq Ibrahim went on one of the runs we have seen many times in this tournament; only in this instance, skipper Eric Ayiah was at hand to slide the rebound home. After going goalless in the first two games, there was relief for the much-touted forward. “My coach taught me to be composed in front of the goal. That helped me today," Ayiah said.
The forward went on to score again at the beginning of second half as life was snuffed out of India. Ghana’s dominance continued. Lalengmawia came on for Aniket Jadhav in the 78th minute but such was the state of chaos that even the fresh substitute was muscled off the ball by Gabriel Leveh in the lead up to the third goal. “I knew we were going to suffer in the third game. The players were finished physically. The brain does not work when you are tired. We made three mistakes that we didn’t make in the previous games,” said Matos, after the game.
But many of the errors that we saw in the previous games were repeated on Thursday. To cite, the ball distribution remained incredibly poor for the third game running. Except for the odd passing combination, India could barely threaten Ghana. According to Matos, Fabin’s side was the strongest team in the group but the hosts could not rise to the occasion.
The Portuguese coach, though, believed that it was important to make the mistakes that India made. For learning, “the experience of suffering stupid goals is an important process.” Although he is certain that the I-League — or the ISL for that matter — is not at the level which the Indian players experienced over the past week, Matos believes that the squad will get stronger once it goes through entire league campaigns — as proposed by the AIFF.
Looking to the future, the coach called for the establishment of a football culture where five and six-year-olds have avenues to play football and pathways to be skilled. But it is worth arguing that such development may not necessarily take decades. As we have seen time and again, international football sides can reimagine themselves within the space of five-six years. And don’t forget, India’s infrastructure is not among the worst.
As for his personal future, Matos revealed that it was a good possibility that he will continue to work with this side. But it is not just the players who will have to prove that they can kick on from here. The coach has plenty of convincing to do as well. For starters, it will be great if the India Under-17 World Cup squad does not turn out to be another lost generation.
As for Ghana, the Black Starlets were the rightful winners of Group A. Some doubts may have crept in after the loss to the US, but the team can feel secure again. Including coach Fabin who said, “When we lost to the US, we got so many calls from back home. So, I thought if we lose to India, I may have to apply for citizenship here. But I’m safe in my country now.” Cue laughter.