There was already an air of confidence within the Indian team that travelled to South Africa for the Junior Women’s World Cup. It’s a mindset that developed after the success the senior team enjoyed at the Olympics last year.
Now, barely a week since the tournament started in Potchefstroom, that degree of self-belief has only increased. The team had set a few targets for itself, but there was a conscious effort to ensure the players don’t get ahead of themselves. The targets were on a step-by-step basis. And during a virtual press conference on Wednesday, the team confirmed the first target had been achieved.
“Our first target was to top Pool D,” said vice-captain Ishika Chaudhary in a matter-of-fact manner.
She added: “We all have the mindset that we want to achieve something here, but we’re going about it match by match. We’re just focusing on one match and the outcome in that particular match. Not the next one.”
They’re staying in the now. And the ‘now’ for this talented group of Under-21s is that they are in the quarterfinals of the World Cup after winning each of their Pool D games – just like they had hoped.
In their opening game, they came up with a commanding 5-1 win over Wales. A day later, on April 3, they soaked the pressure of the mighty German attack but held on strongly to a 2-1 win. On Tuesday they completed a clean sweep of the group with a 4-0 win over Malaysia.
Target achieved, now onto the next match, the quarterfinal against South Korea on Friday, April 8.
But there’s more to this team than just being goal-oriented. In this age of cut-throat competition, they’re, quite simply, out there having fun.
“We have quite a bond in the junior team. We know what everyone likes, and what we can use to tease each other with. Even if some of the players have gone up to the senior level, it’s still the same bond,” Chaudhary said.
“We enjoy a lot together. We have a lot of activities we do together, and we enjoy ourselves. That’s just how the environment is in our batch. If we win, we enjoy it. If we lose, we find things to enjoy with each other.”
There has been no paucity of accolades for this young batch – the makings of which came from the 2018 Youth Olympics. In fact, of the nine players that won silver at the five-a-side youth event in Argentina four years ago, eight are in the squad for the Junior World Cup.
Slowly, they’ve all started taking the next step in the sport by breaking into the senior squad. Eight of the 20-player team in South Africa have played for the senior team – three of them were at the Olympics.
“When we went to Tokyo, we didn’t know how to deal with the pressure you get at such big events,” said Salima Tete, the captain, who along with Lalremsiami and Sharmila Devi are the three players in the squad that competed at the Olympics.
“We learnt how to deal with it, and now playing more often in the seniors, we learnt so much more. Off the field, on the field, the practice matches, we’ve gained a lot of confidence.”
There were opportunities to play against the senior team as well in a few practice matches before they made the journey to South Africa. It gave them a chance to get a glimpse of the speed of play at the highest level in the sport, not to mention the chemistry they managed to forge within the squad.
“We managed to make a few more combinations, which was handy. Players like Beauty (Dung Dung) didn’t know how to play in those structures, so we practiced that and prepared,” Tete added.
That camaraderie came to the fore in the three matches they’ve played, highlighted almost perfectly in the fourth goal against Malaysia.
Beauty made an interception and pulled it back to Baljeet Kaur. She spotted the run of Sharmila and found her with a pass down the centre. Sharmila quickly nudged it forward to Beauty who had rushed down the left. A first touch to control and a second to put a perfectly weighted pass forward for Mumtaz Khan to deflect home.
A typical training ground goal, but one that the players have long forgotten.
“Our challenge at the start of the tournament was to top our group. We did that and we’re very happy,” Tete added.
“Now we’re focusing on the quarterfinal. That’s all we’re thinking of.”