India hopes to script footballing history at U-17 World Cup
New Delhi: The India Under-17 Football team will go out there and hope to play their heart out to script a fairy tale when the much-awaited FIFA U-17 World Cup begins here on Friday.
The history will be made when the bunch of 21 talented but nervous teenagers step on the turf at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here for their campaign opener against the US as they will be the first Indian team to take part in a FIFA tournament.
The U-17 World Cup, which will feature 24 teams, is the first FIFA event in any age group to be held in India. The teams, representing FIFA's six confederations, have been divided into six groups of four.
India have been placed in Group A alongside the US, South American giants Colombia and two-time winners Ghana. The Indian boys will face the Americans on October 6 before locking horns with Colombia and Ghana on October 9 and October 12, respectively.
However, despite having virtually no chances of advancing to the knockout stages, the hosts are determined to put up a strong challenge.
India head coach Luís Norton de Matos has vowed that his wards will fight like lions. "Every game is winnable in football," he insists.
Matos also wants the young colts to enjoy every moment of the mega event.
They will, however, have their task cut out for them as the other teams in Group A are far ahead in term of footballing pedigree.
The uphill battle will start against the US on Friday evening.
Not known as a footballing nation, US nonetheless have a formidable team. They have participated in 15 of the 16 editions of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, having only missed out in 2013. Their best performance came at New Zealand 1999, where they came fourth.
US finished runners-up to Mexico at the CONCACAF Under-17 Championship in Panama in May, which was enough to book a spot at the U-17 World Cup.
Ghana, meanwhile, will try to recapture their past glory. They had emerged champions in 1991 and 1995 and reached the final on four out of five occasions in the 1990s. They also recorded a podium finish in New Zealand in 1999.
The West African nation will feature for the first time in the U-17 World Cup after an absence of 10 years, thanks to their runners-up spot finish in the CAF U-17 Africa Cup of Nations which concluded earlier this year.
For Colombia, this will be their sixth appearance at a FIFA U-17 World Cup and their first since the 2009 edition in Nigeria.
They had finished third in 2003 and 2009 which remains their best performance at the tournament.
Having qualified by virtue of their third-placed finish at this year's South American U-17 Championship, Colombia will depend heavily on the attacking trio of Santiago Barrero, Juan Penaloza and Jaminton Campaz.
In Group B, Mali will be among the favourites to qualify for the knock-out stage along with South American giants Paraguay.
Mali, who won the CAF U-17 Africa Cup of Nations in 2015, retained their title at this year's edition in Gabon, thus becoming the first nation to be African U-17 champions on two successive times.
They had reached the final of U-17 World Cup in 2015 before losing 0-2 to Nigeria. A similar performance cannot be ruled out this year as well.
Turkey and reigning Oceania champions New Zealand are the other teams in this group.
Germany are the strongest team in Group C which also features Iran, Guinea and Costa Rica.
Germany boast of impressive attacking talent, scoring 17 goals in five games at the European qualifying tournament. They also reached the semi-finals at the U-17 European Championships before losing to eventual champions Spain.
Group D contains three-time champions and title contenders Brazil alongside Spain, North Korea and Niger.
The Brazil U-17 squad will be without talented striker Vinicius Junior. According to reports in the Brazilian media, he had an agreement with his club Flamengo that he was to be allowed to go to the U-17 World Cup only if the club won the Copa do Brasil title.
As it turned out, Flamengo lost the final to Cruzeiro which meant Vinicius, now owned by Real Madrid, had to miss his flight to India.
Despite missing their main striker, Brazil still have enough talent to win the title, although they should expect a strong challenge from reigning European U-17 champions Spain.
France are the strongest team in Group E which also features Japan, Honduras and New Caledonia.
France, who won the title in 2001, are not exactly U-17 World Cup stalwarts, having featured in only five of the 16 editions of the tournament. But they still have enough firepower to top the group.
Group F features Asian champions Iraq, and CONCACAF champions and two-time U-17 World Cup winners Mexico, besides Chile and England.
This is a balanced group although Mexico and Chile should be favourites to top the group.
With IANS Inputs