From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.23 :: Jun. 06, 2009

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FOOTBALL / NATIONAL U-21 CHAMPIONSHIP

Mizoram meets its match in Punjab

With the youngsters given the opportunity to display their talent in front of the I-League club coaches, it was football skills that mattered, not the age of the players. Nandakumar Marar reports.

Pics: ARVIND TENGSE

The Punjab team with the Dutta Ray Trophy.

The National Under-21 Championship, organised by the All India Football Federation at Fatorda’s Nehru Stadium, gave the youngsters the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of the I-League club coaches from Goa, Mumbai and Kolkata, who were on the lookout for talented players as part of their clubs’ future plans. The coaches of Churchill Brothers, the I-League champion, Sporting Club de Goa, Salgaocar, Mahindra United and Mohammedan Sporting were presen t at the stadium.

The focus of these I-League talent hunters went beyond the age factor — they identified players on the basis of their ball skills, physical attributes and performance under pressure during the knockout stage. Teams such as Punjab and Mizoram, the champion and runner-up respectively, Haryana and Bengal, the losing semifinalists, were closely watched by the I-League club coaches. It was football intelligence that mattered, not the age of the players.

Mizoram, packed with creative players who dazzled with their one-touch passing, was the most sought after team in the tournament. The north-eastern state went down 2-3 to Punjab in the final after taking the lead twice. What let Mizoram down against Punjab’s searing counter-attacks were its weak defence and goalkeeping. “This is the way Mizoram plays football,” said team manager Benjamin Khiangte.

According to the Mizoram coach, H. Lalmuanpuia, because of their short stature, and also the shortage of proper football grounds, the state’s football-loving youngsters have mastered the short-passing game, rolling the ball along the ground.

“We don’t have proper stadium, grounds or a coaching system. Kids play on small grounds and pick up what they see on television. It is mainly the English Premier League; we don’t get to see quality football in the Spanish or Italian leagues,” explained Khiangte.

Mizoram’s Lalrinfela, operating on the left wing, enthralled with his left-footed play and the ability to float the ball into the goalmouth from different angles. Skipper and striker David Lalthansanga, playmaker David Lalrinmuana and striker Christopher Lalthlamuana were the others short-listed by the I-League clubs.



Midfield tussle… Onkar Singh of Punjab (left) and Lalrinfela of Mizoram fight for the ball in the final at the Nehru stadium, Fatorda, Goa.

Tongue-twisting names all, but their command over the language and grammar of football was clear and precise. Savio Madeira, former India midfielder and now a member of the National team’s coaching panel, said: “I got to see one half of a Mizoram match. The players looked technically correct. Now is the time for these youngsters to choose clubs where they will be given enough chances at the senior level. Going for big clubs due to big money will be a mistake because money may be there but without playing competitive football, the talented players won’t develop.”

Madeira lauded Punjab’s triumph. “I did not see any Punjab match in the National U-21, but if they managed to beat Mizoram, they must have played an outstanding game,” he said.

A majority of the Punjab players belonged to the JCT Football Academy. They displayed composure and solidity in the semifinals and final. Unlike Mizoram, which progressed to the climax like a whirlwind before stumbling, Punjab opted for a calculated approach by packing its midfield and banking on just two strikers to score goals on counter-attacks.

“Mizoram may have scored a lot of goals, but we have watched them and know how to tackle them,” Punjab’s coach Kuldip Singh had said before the title clash.

Punjab played remarkably in the final to deliver the knockout punch and lift the Dutta Ray Trophy.

“Five of our players, including the captain and goalkeeper Pawan Kumar belong to the JCT academy,” said Kuldip Singh. “Lalchhuanmawia is a Mizo in our team, he will also join the academy.”

The tall and sturdy Punjab players had the edge over Mizoram in aerial battles. Vijay Kumar and Ajay Singh (two goals) were on target in the final as Punjab put paid to Mizoram’s hopes. Vijay sneaked into the goalmouth to tap home a rebound off the Mizoram goalkeeper. Later, Ajay bulged the roof of the net with a stunning volley on the run. He then capitalised on a goalkeeping fumble to score his second goal of the match.

Haryana’s deep defender Vivek Singh Kalra and goalkeeper Pardeep Kumar were outstanding in the semifinals against Mizoram. They displayed a cool head in tough situations to thwart Mizoram’s flamboyant attackers. Mizoram, however, came through 3-1 with goals from Lalthlamuana, Lalthansanga and Lalrinfela. Roshan Singh netted the only goal for Haryana.

In the other semifinal, Punjab beat Bengal 1-0.

THE RESULTS

FINAL

Punjab 3 (Ajay Singh 2, Vijay Kumar) bt Mizoram 2 (C. Zothansanga, T. Lalhuapzauva).

SEMIFINALS

Punjab 1 (Maninder Singh) bt Bengal 0; Mizoram 3 (Christopher Lalthlamuana, David , Lalrinfela) bt Haryana 1 (Roshan Singh).

* * *

WHAT’S THE PROOF ?

Age is more than just a number in an event like the National Under-21 Championship, organised by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). Birth certificates were treated as age proof for the players’ eligibility in the tournament and no other medical tests were conducted.

According to Savio Messias, the secretary of the Goa Football Association (GFA), the host, 10 players were found over-aged on the first day of the tournament. “I was later told that many of those found over-aged were later allowed to play by the Match Commissioner,” he said, expressing surprise at the development.

Match Commissioner Rakesh Bakshi (Chandigarh) was not available for comment. Messias replied in the negative when asked if the GFA had any directive from the AIFF to send the over-aged players for scientific tests to confirm their age.

The AIFF had resorted to MRI tests in other age-group events like the National Sub-Junior (U-17) Girls tournament (2007-08), staged in Assam, and ossification tests for the Manchester United Premier Cup (U-15) 2009 qualifiers in Gangtok.

According to the official AIFF website, www.the-aiff.com, the federation observer/match commissioner reserves the right to refer any player, who seems to be over-aged, to the medical committee, who will examine the player and if necessary take MRI (Magnetic Resonance Image) for ascertaining the correct age.

Nandakumar Marar



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