A day ahead of India’s first match at a Fifa women’s U-17 World Cup, captain Astam Oraon had a simple message for fans, but one with a deeper-lying meaning.
“My only message to the fans is that they come for the matches, enjoy and support us. Support us to help take Indian women’s football forward. If we get their support, we will be more motivated and we’ll play better.”
This is what this World Cup means for Indian women’s football. In a country where the top women’s football league runs for just over a month, hosting a women’s World Cup could prove to be the catalyst that would finally see women’s football take off. And the first match against the United States - a country that has won four world titles at the senior level - on Tuesday, at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, is the first step towards that change.
Unlike many of the teams that will play at the tournament, the Indian team was put together barely nine months ago. With no youth structure in place, the All India Football Federation held trials from which head coach Thomas Dennerby established a pool of 45-50 players.
The team played in the Torneo Female Football Tournament in Italy, the U-16 Open Nordic tournament in Norway, and went on an exposure tour to Europe ahead of the World Cup. Apart from a 17-1 win over local side WSS Barcelona, the Indian team lost six matches and drew once - conceding 23 goals and scoring three.
A few months ago there was also a grave possibility that the event would not take place after Fifa suspended the AIFF.
India’s preparation was also hampered after assistant coach Alex Ambrose, who was an integral part of the scouting programme, was accused of sexual misconduct by players and was subsequently sacked by the AIFF. Despite the setbacks, Dennerby is cautiously optimistic of his side’s chances at the World Cup.
“We’ve played good games against some good teams (during exposure tours) also. We played against Sweden, one of the best sides. It was an equal game. If we are close against Sweden, I think we are also close to these teams (in this tournament) as well,” Dennerby said at the pre-match press conference.
India have been drawn in Group A with women’s football powerhouses USA and Brazil, and fellow debutants Morocco. Despite their senior women’s team dominating senior World Cup over the years, the US U-17 team has failed to reach the knockout phases on the tournament since reaching the final in the inaugural edition in 2008. Brazil’s best performance at the tournament has been making it to the quarterfinals twice before.
Morocco are the first North African team to qualify for the U-17 women’s World Cup and secured their place by beating continental giants Ghana. Though they are debutants, Morocco has put in a lot of resources into the women’s game over the years with the senior team qualifying for the 2023 Fifa World Cup for the first time.
Being underdogs, Dennerby said, would suit his wards with opposition teams finding it difficult to score against them. The advantage of playing in front of home fans could also help in the Indian team pulling off an upset or two.
“At the start, all teams in the group will have zero points. We have to fight for it and we will do whatever it takes to try and qualify for the quarterfinals. It will be a huge success if we qualify for the quarterfinals because that would mean we have beat the USA, Brazil or Morocco and that is good. I have seen the girls perform and I know that if we have our best day and the top teams have a little bit of a weak day and we can score the first goal and they get a little bit nervous, then we have a chance. If we get a chance, we will fight for it,” he said.
“It (being underdogs) suits us well. We have a team that we know can defend well. One thing that I hope everybody can see [on Tuesday] is that it’s going to be hard to score on us and if we can utilise our own chances, there’s a good chance for us to come out with points against USA. USA will definitely come as favourites no doubt but that is on paper before the game. The game starts at 0-0 and we have to do a very good performance and if we do that, if we only focus on the performance and what to do and follow the game plan, we have a chance,” he added.
Up against technically superior teams like USA and Brazil, India will likely be forced to defend deep and hope to hit on the counter-attack. The likes of captain Astam and Shilky Devi, who was part of the senior squad for the 2022 AFC Asian Cup, will be tasked with marshalling the Indian defence.
In attack, India will rely on the speed Nitu Linda, Neha and S Lynda Kom. The latter finished as the top-scorer at the SAFF U-18 Championship earlier this year and also bagged the Most Valuable Player award.
A good result against the US in their first match will be a huge boost to India’s chances of making it to the quarterfinal. That would set up an exciting match against fellow debutants Morocco on October 14 with their final group stage match against Brazil on October 17.
Five years after India hosted the U-17 men’s World Cup, many of the players in that team have gone on to have successful starts to their club careers with some even breaking into the senior national team. For the U-17 women’s team, the hope is that their performances, as Astam said, could finally be the push women’s football needs in the country.