At 8pm on October 6, a group of Indian teenagers will step onto the pitch of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to become the first ever players to represent the country at a FIFA World Cup. The country's prime minister will be part of an expected sold out crowd of sixty thousand at the venue and many million more will be watching at home. But this Indian U-17 team's challenge only begins at that point. Their opener against team USA will be as difficult a baptism into the big league as any.
India are playing by virtue of being hosts, built from scratch over the last few years, featuring players with negligible international experience. They will be expected to perform against a team that has done this for longer -- qualified for every U-17 world Cup bar one and one featuring a Werder Bremen talent paired with a PSG prospect up front.
The Indian team walks boldly, though, into this brave new world. If coach Luis Matos is calm at the pre-match press conference, sitting next to him is a stony-faced 16-year-old Amarjit Kiyam, whose locked jaw is set with determination. "We are excited as all Indian people are. We have worked very well and very hard to get to this point. This is a decisive moment for the future. We'd like to make history and the boys are aware of that," Matos says.
Matos doesn't undersell the mountain his side have to climb. His defensive mainstay Boris Singh will be sitting in the stands due to a red card he received against Iran last year. But the disadvantages began from an even earlier stage. "I would have preferred to play a lot of games, but we don't play a lot of games. When you start against a team like USA, their players come into this competition with 10 years of experience," says Matos. The gap shows most clearly in the way the two sides finish. "Our side creates a lot of chances, but where more experienced players need three chances to score, we need seven. But this is something that doesn't come fast. This needs time," he says.
Matos knows what his side have to do to compensate for the difference in individual skill. "The USA is very strong compared to us in almost every point. They have an offensive philosophy. They have fantastic forwards in Josh Sargent and Tim Weah. But we are going to play as a unit and stop them." The fact that India haven't played may create an element of mystery. While India lost 4-0 to the USA the last time they played at the 2016 AIFF Youth Cup, Matos' side has evolved since then. "We know how they will play. Although we have played a few matches against Mexico and Chile, the USA don't know whether we will play the same formations," he says.
Matos believes his side has its own strengths. "This is a side that follows my ideas very quickly. They have a lot of intensity in the players. They are humble and want to learn. They are more focused and the quality in defence is good." This will be a different side to the one that lost against the USA last year. The side no longer plays the high press game that opened them up against attacking sides. "They used to play a more direct game. But now they try to play with more consistency on the ball," Matos says.
India typically play a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, but in recent matches they have experimented with a 4-1-4-1. In this formation, a central midfielder sits just ahead of the back four, and the four midfielders make sure that there's very little space for the opposition midfield. This is typically used by sides that are good on counter-attacks. "We play two lines (in midfield and in defence) very close to reduce the space against Ghana and USA which are very good going forward. The whole team is involved, not just the defence. If you have a good defence, there is possibility to have a good result," says Matos. India will also hope to make the home advantage count. "Hopefully we can play with 12 players," says Matos, referring to the sold-out crowd expected for Friday's game.
India will start as underdogs in this contest and coach Matos will bank on the age-old adage in sport. "Football is a game where you don't know what can happen. I know the USA is very strong and has very few weaknesses. But we will fight for this little possibility," he says.
Matos has another, possibly harder requirement of his players in light of the pressure they are under. "They must enjoy this moment. Every tackle, the people in the stadium, the ambience. My advice will be to come in the game and enjoy playing football." It's uncertain how seriously Indian captain Amarjit Kiyam will take that suggestion. He acknowledges the effort made simply to get this far. But it is not enough. "We sacrificed, staying away from friends, family. But we have to do it for the country. The stadium will be full. And there will be people watching on TV. We will play our best, fight hard. Who knows if we get another chance," he says.