AIFF Media Team
KATHMANDU, NEPAL: Tough situations create tough players. Up against hosts Nepal in the SAFF U19 Championship semi-final with more than 12 thousand voices cheering for the opposition was an atmosphere the majority of the Indian squad were dealing with for the first time. But at the end of the hard-fought 90 minutes and 10 penalty kicks, the Blue Colts' grit and hunger for glory sailed them through to the final, where they will cross swords with Pakistan.
Head coach Shuvendu Panda had placed his trust in his boys before the game, saying that they have the desired mentality to brave the opposition fans. And despite having played their first international match just six days before, the India U19s stood up to the task. While it was a confident start with Sahil Khurshid opening the scoring mid-way through the first half, the crowd kept pushing the home team for the equaliser, which finally arrived in the 74th minute. Decibels soared, Indian players were booed and jeered at times.
India, who had hoped to seal the deal in normal time, were dragged into the dreaded penalty shoot-out, which proved to be the ultimate test of the Blue Colts' mentality. Although Dinesh Singh Soubam and Ricky Meetei Haobam saw their penalties saved, Arjun Singh Oinam, Gwgwmsar Goyary and Manglenthang Kipgen's fifth and winning penalty nicked the win.
Goalkeeper Lionel Daryl Rymmei saved Nepal's second penalty by Prashant Laksam, putting the hosts under pressure early on. The kind of pressure they failed to bear. Rymmei, who watched Lachhu Thapa and Bikram Tamang send their penalties off target, said, "We were playing against the crowd but I was getting motivated by them. I saved one, and they missed two. They were the ones looking under pressure instead of us.
"It feels so great to help the team. I knew I had to make one save, and the rest will be done. I faked my jump a bit, and he stuttered under pressure with the shot and I made the save with ease," added the Meghalayan.
Khurshid, who watched the shoot-out anxiously from the touchline after being substituted, must have breathed a sigh of relief that his rasping half-volley which lodged into the roof of the net did not go in vain. "It was my first time playing in front of a crowd like this and it was incredible. We faced difficulties at times, but we're very happy to get the win," said the winger from Jammu and Kashmir.
The 18-year-old described how he felt scoring his first India goal at a crucial moment of the tournament. "What a great feeling it was. My first international goal, and at a stage like this. Amazing. That moment when the ball went in, I couldn't contain my happiness. It was special to celebrate that goal together with the entire team. I want to dedicate this goal to my family - my mom and dad, who were watching from home, and my teammates," said Khurshid.
The evening was special, but the job is far from done. On Saturday, in the SAFF U19 Championship final, India will clash with Pakistan, who also edged Bhutan on penalties in the first semi-final. Looking at the broader picture, India captain Ishaan Shishodia said, "When we arrived here, the mindset of each and every member of this squad was to lift the trophy. And now we're delighted to reach the final and hope to carry the momentum and lift the trophy.
We wanted to finish the semi-final in normal time, but things didn't go our way. I think we played well but missed a lot of chances. In penalties, you never know. The game is always fifty-fifty. We want to ensure we win in 90 minutes against Pakistan," the midfielder stated.
Rymmei, who captained India against Bhutan in Shishodia's absence, concurred. "We want to get the job done in regulation time. I hope our strikers score goals up front, and at the back, I'll do my best to not let in any," he said confidently.
Being named the India U19 captain was a big deal for Shishodia, and leading the team out wearing the armband in front of a packed Dashrath Stadium was an unforgettable experience.
"I think everyone who takes up football as a career wants to play at the biggest stage," said the 18-year-old. "This is the start for us. It's always a proud feeling when you are named captain and take on the leadership of the team. My parents are also proud of their son leading the national team."