As a follow up to my previous piece, I am pleased to say that there is a major development. PM Modi did not visit Jawaharlal Nehru stadium on October 9 to watch India take on Colombia. Consequently, the entire evening and the Indian team, were transformed. Or at least that’s how the derivative works in my mind. New Delhi started off on a terrible note as a host city for the tournament. But two nights ago this mammoth venue shook off the layers of dust, literally as well as figuratively, that had formed in the years since the 2010 CWG.
The LOC had organised (free) water dispensers at several locations along the second level concourse, there was more food to buy and the crowds were far less angry as a result. The process of getting in and out of the stadium, because of the absence of the un-programmed robots of Delhi Police’s VIP security unit, was smooth. Fans, with a genuine interest in the game, got the opportunity to come and watch the young India squad do their thing. Sitting just under the giant screen were students from Army Public School, Shankar Vihar and Amrita Vidyalayam. Not only did some of them, both boys and girls, play the sport but they also knew some of the players on the pitch. Compared to the boys who came to the first game, this was a sea change.
Much of the credit for this pleasantness, though not all, is due to Modi’s absence. Some is also due to Mohesh Thangjam. His son Boris lit up India’s right flank on the night and wakened the crowd from its tropical reverie. Mohesh wears glasses and is far more bookish-looking than a man who earns a living relying on his wit might. Like large chunks of Manipur’s capital Imphal, his home is an unpainted brick structure—levels, floors and external walls—with no doors or rooms the way we know them. All spaces are communal and private at the same time.
Mohesh Thangjam looks at you, always, with keen intent. Even though he doesn't understand the language you are speaking very well, there is an oddly tangible subconscious effort in that direction. He was categorical about being a daily wage earner, but that he didn’t need to do manual labour to earn that wage. He meets you with a mix of humility and delight, because he respects that you have travelled from a long way off to visit him. There is a wide smile when he says he is Boris’s father. Ten years ago, when Thangjam Jr. started taking a keen interest in sports, his father wasn’t biting. He had mouths to feed.
Holi is a five-day festival in Manipur and sport is a big part of the celebration. It is, for the young people in each locality, the medium through which they engage with the community. Athletes are the pride of the community here. They are encouraged, in small ways. Their families give up small personal needs to feed the potential. Mothers will put away a little cash for some extra dried fruits, cousins will save a little cash and send boots from bigger cities, small stuff that makes the kids feel special. Boris is one of those kids. He never believed in not competing. Ten years ago he was competing if whatever local sports were organised in Thangmeiband, West Imphal. He excelled at the longer races—5,000 and 10,000 metres—says his mother, Tampha. “He would always be first,” she adds. You might discount that as a mother’s bias, but Boris’ relentless drive is what stood out to me from the first time I saw him play an international back in May 2016. He was, closely followed by goalkeeper Nawaz, the best player on the field. Since that day I have not seen him play a game where he has looked out of his depth.
What stood out about Boris’ his performance against Colombia was years of belief coming to the fore. He brought an energy and sense of purpose that galvanised the team. At times you could notice coach Luis Norton de Matos, leaning out of the technical area, telling him to calm down. In the stands we were doing the same. But only at times. For the most, the crowd loved it. If there is already some return we wish to see from the investment that has been made in this under 17 project, it was on display on Monday night. The 48,000 plus crowd in Delhi got a real glimpse of the next generation of Indian footballers making their way out of the nest. Dheeraj Moirangthem in goal, Anwar Ali in front of him, Jaekson Thaunoujam in the middle, Boris down the flank, Rahul KP back in midfield after being played out of position in the first game. These are names you will hear again, if things go as planned. And, if these players are given the opportunity to develop at a slightly better rate than they have progressed this far, it will not be long before we see some of them drawing the attention of the senior national team and the bigger clubs in Indian football.
The moment of the game was, of course, India’s first goal in the World Cup. In any World Cup finals tournament. Whatever happens of Jaekson’s footballing career, he will always own that slice of history. That it came through a set piece—with Sanjeev Stalin putting in a dipping, curling corner from the left—indicates the effectiveness of some elements of the preparatory process and a hope that future teams can imbibe the idea playing organised, European football.
Ahead of India’s final group game—most likely their final game of the tournament—the air of positivity remains. The crowd, press and experts have all appreciated the team’s effort and not worried too much about the results. This is a pleasant occurrence in a hard nation that doesn’t always give due emphasis to context. A victory over Ghana, two-time under 17 champions, will require a superhuman effort and a huge slice of luck. But, if this India squad can pull it off, the boost the sport of football will receive in the country cannot be quantified.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.