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India upbeat despite tough draw at the U-17 World Cup

Indian U-17 football players Jaekson Singh (L), Sanjeev Stalin (C) and Dheeraj Singh pose for a photo before the draw.
(From left) Indian U-17 football players Jackson Singh, Sanjeev Stalin and Dheeraj Singh before the draw in Mumbai.

Lady luck didn't grace hosts India at FIFA U-17 World Cup draw on Friday -- they were grouped against formidable opposition in Ghana, USA and Colombia. Their Under-17 head coach Luis Norton de Matos acknowledged that all teams pose a "difficult" threat but despite the steep slope ahead he aims to "fight" and not hold back.

"We expected a lot from this draw," Matos said. "We have been working for a long time. We accept this draw. In football, there are no impossible things. If our opponents are strong and very experienced, we will fight for the result. The boys are enthusiastic to play. They are not afraid. I am not afraid."

Ghana and USA, ranked fifth and eighth respectively for the tournament, are India's biggest threats. USA, along with Brazil, have participated in the tournament 15 times -- the most by any team. Ghana are a powerhouse, having won it twice (1991, 1995) and reached the finals four times in a row (1991, 1993, 1995, 1997). Colombia, ranked 15th, are probably the easiest of the three opponents for India, if they want make the knockouts.

"All three teams are difficult," Matos said. "They play different types of football. Colombia is a typical South American team, they compete with Brazil and Argentina. In the US, there's a tradition as well, but I think we can win and prepare in every game like that. (In) Colombia, the players are playing in lower divisions. Ghana are one of the best African teams.

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"USA have only missed one World Cup. They have done a fantastic job over the last 20 years, and now they have a very good generation. When we play USA or Ghana, there are 17-year-olds with 10 years of competition behind them. It is impossible for a coach to give that experience in six months."

Matos' sense of hope and positivity bodes well for a team participating in its first-ever U-17 World Cup, also India's first-ever FIFA tournament. While the focus is on the three group games for now, Matos touched upon the importance of looking beyond.

"The first thing is to prepare for the future," he said. "There is a lot of interest of the federation to grow football in this country. It is very important to show that these Indian players can play good football. In a few years, they can fight against any team in the world."

India's first game is against USA on October 6. USA didn't get through the group stage in 2015, but are a changed team now and will give India problems. If India get a positive result against them, the pressure will drop when they meet Colombia on October 9. Colombia have rich experience as well -- they have participated in the tournament five times, their last appearance coming in 2009, where they finished fourth.

PV Sindhu at the U-17 World Cup draw on Friday

Ghana, whom India play last on October 12, will be the biggest threat in the group. The U-17 World Cup has been great to African nations since its inception in 1985. Seven of the 16 tournaments have been won by two African teams -- Ghana (twice) and Nigeria (five times). India could draw positives from the fact that Ghana haven't competed in the U-17 World Cup since 2007, where they finished fourth.

Matos said the preparation has been satisfactory and the whole team has only one aim: start with a win.

"Next 90 days? We will see videos (of the opposition) and the analyst will show all the things -- free kicks, the way they play, their tactics. The first game is the most important. We want to start with a victory. Transporting this analysis into training is what we need to do over the next three months. We will be playing in Mexico against Colombia and Chile, and we need to see how we go against them."

The players present at the ceremony were also upbeat about the tournament. Sanjeev Stalin, one of India's go-to men, said: "For a footballer, it is a feeling of goosebumps. The FIFA World Cup is a historic moment for our country. We will give it our best."

Matos, who was appointed the U-17 coach in March, has his work cut out. "When I accepted this challenge, of course, there wasn't much time. But I don't want to give excuses," he said.

"We have worked very hard, and at the end of each game, people must be proud of the behaviour of these players. The 12th player is the public, because if people come with enthusiasm, then these players can play with more passion and I hope young people come to stadiums and see that it is possible. You can play against any team in the world. I have had the chance to keep the players all this time with me, because other teams have had competitions. But we have organised friendlies and made sure we make progress. They still have some time to progress in technical, physical level."


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