Women’s U-17 World Cup: India ready to test resilience against US

Astam Oraon beamed, the smile stretching almost to the cornrows on either side, when asked if she wanted to sleep well at night. “Yes,” India’s captain said before the opening of the Under-17 World Cup to the US here on Tuesday. “We have a game tomorrow and rest is important. We will sleep well.”

Nearly eight months of training in Jamshedpur and here with 45-46 players in long camps – that’s nearly 270 sessions of running, strength and conditioning and football, said India head coach Thomas Dennerby – who played tournaments and friendlies in Europe was for this: a never-before-seen event in India’s football history. One that will be played at the Kalinga stadium here, where Sambalpuri patterns enhance the bright blue and red seats, Goa and Navi Mumbai where it will end on October 30th. One that will likely be the reason for FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to meet. One that Tanzania, in their first ever World Cup at any level, would like to make unforgettable. One that could promote the women’s game and, by extension, be a voice for their empowerment.

There have been several winners in the previous six iterations in which Japan and the Koreas dominated. Together with Canada, Germany and New Zealand, Japan has qualified for all finals. They have also competed at the summit three times and were champions in 2014. North Korea, which is not among the 16 in India, has won it twice and has come second once. Defending champions Spain played two finals, lost to Japan in 2014 and finished in the top three four times. The only time neither Japan nor the Koreas were in the title round was in 2018, the last time the competition was held, when Mexico lost 1-2 in Montevideo.

That is why the Spanish coach of the USA, Natalia Astrain, spoke of wanting to “change history”.

“We are proud of our four stars,” she said, referring to the US Women’s World Cup titles. But in this age group, the US has only made it to the knockout round once, in 2008 when they came in second. Brazil, which has produced Mata and beautiful football, has never progressed beyond the quarter-finals. However, both are bosses at the continental level; USA scored 58 goals and conceded one en route to the 2022 CONCACAF title.

Brazilian coach and former national team player Simone Gomez Jatoba said development work at the under-17 level only started “three to four years ago”. Astrain also spoke of structural changes that should benefit the under-17s, hopefully this time and certainly in the future.

Three of the teams in Group A, which also has India, talked about the difficulty of acclimating. “Even to breathe you sweat so much,” Jatoba said Tuesday afternoon before the Brazil-Morocco match. USA trained in Dubai before coming here, Astrain said. Morocco, their French coach Anthony Rimasson said, began preparations at home on September 6 before moving to Portugal and then Goa to adjust to the weather.

Dennerby hopes this will all work in India’s favor. India is ready and on a par with the best in strength and fitness, he said. But he accepted that, in the mix by host, his team was underdogs and would play as one. “It will be difficult to score against us,” said the 63-year-old Swede. “We have fast wingers, we have to take advantage of that,” he said.

Dennerby has asked the team to enjoy the moment. He knows that the US can press high and cause mistakes; that Brazil “has some big girls who are technically good” and that Morocco overcame a 0-2 deficit by beating Ghana on penalties to be the first team from North Africa in this competition. But Dennerby has also been steadfast in his claim that if India performs to potential and the others don’t bring their A game, a quarter-final spot is possible. “That would be as big as when I took Sweden to bronze in the 2011 Women’s World Cup,” he said.

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