Junior high: India U-20 football team stuns Argentina 2-1

Written by Mihir Vasavda
| New Delhi |

Updated: August 7, 2018 12:33:19 am

India Under-20 team after the win against Argentina on Monday.

As goals from freekicks generally go, the beauty of this one too lay in the kick-taker’s courage. Not many expected Anwar Ali to aim directly at the goal from roughly 35 yards out — not the 3,500 spectators in Valencia’s Els Arcs Stadium on Sunday night; certainly not the 11 Argentines who had closed down all angles, all gaps on the field. Ali himself did not give any such impression with his short, scampering run-up. But the ball formed a perfect arc as it flew off his laces, dipped sharply and rattled the post, into the goal.

The goal propelled India’s under-20 team, who played with 10 men for 40 minutes, to a scarcely-believable 2-1 win over Argentina under-20 in the final group stage match of the Cotif Cup, a biennial invitational tournament for international youth teams. It is one of India’s biggest win, in terms of the quality of the opposition, in the recent years across any age group, made sweeter by the under-16 team, who defeated reigning Asian under-16 champions Iraq 1-0 in the West Asian Football Federation Cup on the same evening in Amman. The only goal of the match was scored by Bhuvenesh in added time.

But for obvious reasons, it is the under-20 team’s surreal scoreline against Argentina, who’ve won the youth World Cup six times, that has put them in the global spotlight.

For a country still recovering from a nightmarish World Cup, a defeat to India, even in a junior tournament, will feel like rubbing salt to wounds. Argentina’s biggest sports newspaper Ole called it as a ‘setback’, considering this competition was seen as the first step towards reshaping the national team’s future after a turbulent last few months.

Jorge Sampaoli, the Chilean tactician under whom Argentina imploded in Russia, was initially named as the coach of the under-20 side for the Cotif Cup.

After he was sacked, the Argentine federation named his assistant and World Cupper Lionel Scaloni as the coach with the legendary Pablo Aimar as his assistant. They were last week named as Argentina national team’s interim coaches.

India’s participation, meanwhile, was a part of the ongoing process to develop the junior players. The government and All India Football Federation (AIFF) have spent in the last two years, mainly on exposure tours like these.

Just around the time Argentina named Scaloni as its coach, the AIFF turned to Floyd Pinto, an engineer by qualification who is now one of the best Indian coaches, to lead the junior side.

The disparity on the bench was a mere reflection on the mismatch this match was in terms of the quality both sides possessed. They might not have been the best XI since some players are away with their clubs but Argentina still had players from some of the biggest teams, including Boca, Newell’s, Estudiantes and Inter, among others.

Majority Indians, in contrast, play for the Arrows in the I-League, the country’s de facto second division league.

Further evidence of the imbalance was the performances in the tournament. India were already out of contention in the tournament and hadn’t managed a single win before Sunday night’s game. But a goalless draw against 2017 under-20 World Cup runners-up Venezuela had seen them salvage some pride. Argentina, on the other hand, had won all their matches without conceding a single goal and were expected to run over India. So Scaloni chose to rest some of his key players, considering they were already in the semifinal. This was Argentina’s substitute XI, but India hadn’t quite faced anything like this before. “The chance to play such a team had them all pumped up,” says former India striker Abhishek Yadav, now the national team’s director.

India began well and were gifted the opening goal. Deepak Tangri’s looping header in the fourth minute slipped through goalkeeper Diaz’s hands. That was the only slip-up Argentina had. They controlled the play for the entire match since then, as one would expect. They had more than 70 percent of the possession and passed the ball with authority in India’s half.

India even had a player sent off in the 51st minute thanks to VAR — forward Aniket Jadhav shown red card for getting into a scuffle with Federico Gattoni. Despite being reduced to 10-men, India maintained their shape and made it difficult for the Argentine’s to break the defence.

In the 68th minute, India won a free kick after Gattoni brought down substitute Rahim Ali. In that moment, Ali showed the kind of audacity that has become the hallmark of India’s junior teams since last year’s under-17 World Cup. Argentina scored a consolation but India held on for the freakish result, thanks to a wondrous freekick.

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