Two years, 11 months and nine days after the original day of kick-off, the Fifa U-17 Women’s World Cup 2022 finally got underway in India. Being a biennial event, this edition was due in 2020 (Spain were champions in the 2018 edition) but when the world was hit with the pandemic, all sporting events took a backseat and so did this.
There we were on 11 October 2022, finally, in the almost-packed Kalinga Stadium, as India and the United States walked out and witnessed the opening fireworks.
The Indian team, led by Astam Oraon and coached by Thomas Dennerby, lost their three matches at U17WWC in what was a tough week in Odisha. Here’s a recap of how things unfolded in Odisha.
10th October, 2022 - Matchday minus 1.
Head Coach Thomas Dennerby and Captain Astam Oraon walked into the air-conditioned press conference room and took their seats.
Dennerby was naturally asked about the team’s preparation.
“We started in late February this year and have had about 270 sessions (running, fitness, technical...). The girls are ready. Now it is 90-95 minutes on the pitch that will decide the result,” the Swede said.
Astam shared her thoughts as well, adding, “We have been working hard for the last 7-8 months and are very excited. We are mentally very strong, have a positive mindset and are focussed on the game tomorrow.”
Dennerby liked the title of the underdog. “I think that suits us well,” he said. “USA will come into the match as favourites no doubt. We have a team that can defend really well and I hope tomorrow we show the world that it is hard to score against us.”
He also mentioned a quarterfinal run for this Indian side would rank high up in his coaching highlights alongside the 2011 World Cup bronze medal with Sweden.
11th October, 2022 - Matchday 1 vs USA.
If there ever was a visual representation of phrase “the occasion got to them”, it would have been the first half of this match. Not only a massive set of people watching in-person but also an opponent that is a product of the American women’s soccer youth system... it all made the Indian players nervy and it showed on the pitch. It is worth noting that the American teams have played at this level before and have fed players to the senior system for the nation that has won four senior Women’s World Cup titles out of eight.
USA were everywhere in the first 45, with 79% of the possession. Meanwhile, India too were everywhere – minimal communication, coordination or coherence. Zero shots on target compared to the American’s 14. When the final whistle blew, it was 12:30 PM in Washington DC, but in Bhubaneswar it was 8 past India. There wasn’t much more to say other than in this David and Goliath tale, David wasn’t victorious.
“I know that Team India can play a little bit better than this. I get the feeling that the girls were a bit too nervous given the occasion, and were lacking some confidence,” said Dennerby post-match.
Aside from the regular post-match analysis in a rather diplomatic fashion, Dennerby was asked how he addressed a group of young footballers who have just endured 90 minutes of helpless chaos.
“Girls, the sun is going to come out in India tomorrow anyway, and if we have a sleepless night we won’t be able to perform better going forward. So take for what it was, a loss, as we know we can perform better,” he’d say.
Funny he mentioned the sun because here in the eastern end of India, the sun rises way too early, whether one likes it or not. He also mentioned that the body language of the coach will rub off on the players, “I will be there tomorrow morning smiling and supporting them, trying to encourage them in the best way I can.”
The Indian team was surely disappointed but still carried themselves with confidence and pride. As they crossed the mixed zone, led by Astam, the media did call out to her to ask some questions. She turned to us, and said with a soft expression, “Aaj nahi please, baadmein [not today please, later]” as if to say – we’ve got to head into the changing room and address this on our own first, the QnA can wait.
13th October, 2022 - Matchday minus 1.
Ahead of Morocco test, Dennerby reflected on the multiple goals that India conceded via corners, “The funny thing is, for a long time before this, we didn’t let any goals in via set pieces in this manner. I was a little bit surprised. Of course, on the other hand, we have not played against any team with such quality and players coming in at 6ft high,” he said.
As the media dotted the sidelines of the Indian training session in the evening time, the tension was high. There was a certain anticipation and restlessness, but hopes were also high that any performance by the Indians would be better than the previous one.
14th October, 2022 - Matchday 2 vs Morocco
Another 8 PM kickoff, another packed crowd. Two debutants faced off with a desperate need to earn points. The first half was scoreless, India looked like a totally different side. Creating attacking chances, tracking back and marking well. But that would change second half. A lapse in concentration led to a handball and penalty for Morocco early on. From there, the Moroccans gained more control, bit by bit and saw the match out to a 3-0 victory.
“In one way I am still proud of the girls today because they were working very hard and tried their best. The fitness level of India is definitely not the problem, but we need to be honest, the technical level is a little bit lower than the other teams,” was Dennerby’s opening statement from the post-match press conference.
India needed at least a point to mathematically stay in the competition, so their qualification hopes came to an end. But not the World Cup run just yet – there was one more to go.
16th October, 2022 - Matchday minus 1.
“We know Brazil is a classic football team, best case scenario is they don’t score against us.” Dennerby said with a laugh as the media interaction begins at the training site. “We need to be aggressive, super quick to shut down the press and pass well. We have better chances on set pieces too, they aren’t as organised as the USA was.”
“We are checking max speed, total distance, and number of high speed runners. So far, USA, Brazil, Morocco, no one runs faster and no one runs more. We can be proud of that,” he continued.
On a more macro level, Dennerby requested the fans to be patient. He stressed the importance of the girls being in good academies and playing regular football. That’s when they can make an impact at the world stage.
Let’s go again then, one last time.
17th October, 2022 - Matchday 3 vs Brazil.
India had nothing to lose so it was clear that fearless football was on the cards. Unfortunately, the team’s fullbacks were beaten for pace two times down the wings, a cutback, cross and goal left India reeling 2-0 early. The Brazilians needed a win to ensure progress beyond the group stages and they were determined to get that.
The good news was that after those two goals, India held their shape better, didn’t let the South Americans make penetrating runs so easily and it took three absolute screamers late in the game to get them their next three goals. There was nothing Melody Chanu could do in the Indian goal for those strikes.
Chants of ‘maa tujhe salaam,’ ‘oh mera India’ and ‘oh when the blues go marching in’ were audible throughout the ninety minutes as India’s campaign came to a close with three defeats.
At the end of it all, the team headed over to the stands to show their appreciation post game to the fans.
Then, as everything eventually came full circle, Dennerby entered a quiet and chilled press conference filled with media representatives and said “this is a very clear statement that you are going to hear from me now.”
He went on to make important observations to the effect of: India has a good chance to be a talented team in Asia. We need to have a good long-term training schedule for them. I know when I see them that they are talented but we need to take care of them from an early age – such as academies. In India, an AIFF academy would be really beneficial. Help them with education and let them have a good coach.
The whirlwind of a World Cup week for India came to a close, and there were mixed opinions about it. One says “we can’t keep hosting World Cups being so unprepared and out of our league”... the other says “maybe this World Cup showed the world we are so unprepared and out of our league, that’s exposed now. Let’s ask the right questions and ensure that isn’t the case going forward, ever again.”
I tend to lean to the latter.
Radha Lath Gupta is a freelance journalist who runs @shetalksball, a media platform dedicated to women in sports.