Less than a week before the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the Indian team trains on a school ground in the New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon. It's a functional but unremarkable venue, hard to find, dwarfed by unfinished apartment high rises.
Unlike many of his team-mates, Nongdamba Naorem knows this pitch. A little over a year back, it was a very different version of Naorem who ran lonely laps around the pitch. Back then, he wasn't a forward in the Indian team, one expected to start when India would create history in competing for the first time at a FIFA world event. He was just another 15-year-old then. One who had devoted much of his life to football with little to show for it. He had come to this ground, where close family friend Sushil Singh served as a coach, to figure his life out.
"Nong stayed here for about a month," says Sushil, who still trains youngsters at this ground. "He had no idea what to do then. He had joined an academy in Maharashtra and already spent about Rs 5 lakh. It was a huge investment from his father. And he was not getting the results he wanted. It is a huge burden for anyone."
As it turned out, things would fall into place for Nongdamba. He heard from friends that the Chandigarh-based Minerva Academy was holding trials. He gave it a shot, and was admitted a little later. The same year, he would win the I-League Under-16 title with them. When India fired the U-17 coach Nicolai Adam in January, replacement Luis Matos would call for a match between Minerva and the national team.
A shock 1-0 win for Minerva saw Matos select six players, including Nongdamba, to the national squad. "I spoke to Nong about it. Uske naseeb me likha tha (It was written in his destiny) that he would play for India in the World Cup. What else could you call it," says Sushil of Nongdamba.
The story of the Indian team's journey to the World Cup is one filled with tales similar to Nongdamba's. It is a tale of perseverance and pushing on against the odds and history. But it is also a story in which chance, as much as anything else, has played a crucial role.
It is a journey that very likely appeared to have been stillborn. India have not competed in 77 World Cups prior to the 2017 edition, of any age group or gender. They have qualified for this edition by virtue of being hosts. That too wasn't an assured prospect.
Little had gone right for the sport in 2013 when the AIFF first decided to bid for the tournament. India could not even qualify for the final round of the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament competed by middle-rung Asian nations in the FIFA rankings. India also played four international friendlies during the year, losing two, winning one and drawing the other. The World Cup bid appeared to follow along similarly inept lines. The first bid in January 2013 had been rejected owing to insufficient assurances from the government. And the final bid document was only submitted a day before the end of the deadline on November 2 that year.
Given the lack of a youth development programme in India, it was perhaps fortuitous that preparations for the tournament might have been started back in 2012 when the AIFF first conducted an U-14 football tournament to scout for players for the U-14 regional academies. It would be these regional academies - originally in Kalyani, Mumbai, Bangalore and Goa - that would go on to provide the talent for the U-17 squad. Many of the players in the current 21 were picked all the way back in 2013 for the AIFF Elite Academy when Manipur won the first U-14 National Championships.
Defender Jitendra Singh, midfielders Abhijit Sarkar and Rahul Kannoly, and goalkeepers Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem and Prabhsukhan Singh Gill were all part of the academy, as was defender Boris Singh, who captained Manipur to the U-14 national football championships title.
Yet, the AIFF would also subsequently conduct a large-scale scouting programme in the next two years; the majority of the players in the Indian team are from those who originally joined the regional programme. By his own estimate Abhishek Yadav says he has viewed over 14,000 players since he joined as chief scout and chief operation officer of the Indian U-17 programme in 2015.
Indeed, the boys in this team of 21 have come from across the country. They all shared a passion for the game even if it wasn't the first sport they might have played. Kolhapur's Aniket Jadhav could have picked up athletics, while midfielder Suresh Wangjam and Moirangthem started off playing badminton. But for many, the sport provided them a chance of a better life. They are children of tailors (Komal Thatal), dairy farmers (Anwar Ali), street vendors (Sanjeev Stalin), fish sellers, carpenters (Amarjit Kiyam) and rickshaw drivers (Jadhav).
For Jaekson Singh and Amarjit Kiyam, neighbours from Thoubal, a village near the state capital of Manipur, the journey to the Indian squad began six years ago when they applied for selection to the Chandigarh Football Academy in 2011. Their older brothers Jonychand and Umaykant had made the journey before them, so plans for the younger siblings were not unrealistic. "Life was hard back in Manipur. Getting selected to a football academy meant you were guaranteed food and an education," says Jonychand.
The two got their first break in the national scene after the Chandigarh Football Academy finished runners up in the 2014 Subroto Cup, the most prestigious tournament for Indian youth football. That CFA team would subsequently be pitted against the then India U-14 team picked from the Elite Academy in Goa by newly appointed coach Adam. The Chandigarh team won 3-0, leading to Amarjit, Jaekson and several team-mates, including Ali and Mohammad Shahjahan, also earning a call-up. It would not be the first time that the official 'Indian' team would be humbled by a domestic side.
Adam took the lesson learned against CFA and initiated a large-scale search for footballing talent across India. There would be hiccups along the way too. Of the players chosen from the CFA, several were sent back because they didn't match the potential they had shown in their trial match.
This wasn't always a case of talent. "Jaekson and Ali had the bad luck of just beginning the growth age. Ali was about 148 cm when he went to the Elite Academy. In two years he would grow to 178cm. But because he was growing, he lost speed and had to return to Chandigarh," says Surender Singh, the chief coach of the CFA.
Some states would field overage players. In other cases, such as on one scouting trip in Sikkim, minimum standards were not adhered to. Yet, those in charge of scouting persevered.
"It was a major learning experience for us too," says Yadav. His own extensive career -- which ended only in 2014 and which saw him score four goals in 36 games for the national team -- only prepared him slightly for the challenge he was up against. "Perhaps the biggest lesson we learned was just how big India was. Given the time we had, we did the best job we could. Given that I had played across India during my professional career, I was able to call on all the contacts I had made. But it is impossible to find the best players in India in the time we had. We should probably be doing this sort of scouting every six to eight months."
Of course there wasn't time to do that. It was an issue that would impact every aspect of decision making in preparing the team. Coach Matos, who succeeded Adams in January this year, admitted as much. "In countries like Spain, Germany and Portugal, kids have been playing matches since the time they were six years old. By the time they play in the World Cup, they have 11 years of competitive experience. We have to find a way to compete with that," he said in the lead-up to the World Cup.
Over the past three years, the youngsters who would form the U-17 Indian team have been given a crash course in experience. Since July 2015, they have played 113 matches -- both friendly and competitive fixtures -- against Indian and international opposition and gone on 15 exposure tours from Asia to South America, from mountainous Tabriz, Iran, to the sunny shores of Belo Horizonte in Brazil. No age group team has benefited from as much attention and resources -- AIFF officials say that since 2015, about Rs 8 crores a year has been spent simply on exposure tours for the team. By one estimate, a player who has been with the team since mid-2015 has racked up 200,000 air miles.
For the players, the tours were often their first experience of international travel. "When Amarjit was young, I had bought him a pair of Arsenal football boots. He would insist on wearing those shoes, each time he played an important match," Umaykanta recalls. "When they started tearing, he would have them stitched and continue playing in them. That's how much he loved them. So when he went on a tour, he would make it a point to buy all sorts of branded things for us. He would bring back trainers that we still keep safely."
Ultimately though, results were all that mattered, and it has not been an easy ride by any stretch for the team. A stint that began in July 2015 with a reasonably successful tour of Germany with eight wins and two draws from fourteen games has seen its share of setbacks.
Two defeats against the Bangladesh U-16 side in the SAFF Cup were followed by a 3-0 loss to Iran in the AFC U-16 Championships qualifiers and then two losses - another 3-0 reversal to Iran and a 3-2 defeat against UAE - and a 3-3 draw versus Saudi Arabia in the AFC Championships.
There would be further setbacks. At the BRICS U-17 football tournament in Goa in October 2016, the home side gave up 0-1 results against Russia and China and a 3-1 loss against Brazil. But despite the poor outcomes, there were some positives to take away. The side had not been overawed against far more fancied opponents while their insistence to press forward even at the expense of being vulnerable to counterattacks made for exciting football. And courtesy Komal Thatal's strike against the Selecao - an effort that saw him beat his marker for pace and then curl a shot from the left flank past the keeper - India would discover genuine heroes in its homegrown side too.
Yet, progress would often seem elusive. Adam had admitted the magnitude of the challenge facing him not long after he had taken charge. "The level is scary. I have now seen three U-17 World Cups live. And we have to face such teams. It's like meeting (Wladimir) Klitschko, not his mother or uncle who has a belly. So, this plan is essentially the minimum for us to not get killed," he had said.
Adam wouldn't even make it to the World Cup. Not long after India suffered another string of poor results - three losses out of four in the Atletico Paranaense U-17 International Tournament in Brazil, an 8-0 loss in a friendly against the Russian U-18 team, and then four losses out of five at the Granatkin Cup - he would be fired, ostensibly after a player revolt.
His replacement, Matos, would fall back on a tactic his predecessor had adopted when he first arrived in India. In March this year, Matos would test out his squad against the winners of the inaugural edition of the U-16 I-League - Minerva FC.
Nongdamba would feature in that side, as would a number of players who had been cut from the India camp in 2015. Jaekson had emerged from counseling following his axe two years back and was raring to go. Ali, cut for his slight height, had shot up to 186cm almost a foot taller from the last time he was in contention for the national team.
Apart from the players, that match would be crucial for Minerva coach Bitan Singh too, who had been a coach at the Elite Academy and one of the head officials of the scouting program. However, he had left the camp after what he says was a lack of belief in Indian coaches. "When I got a chance to play the national team, I grabbed it. I too had a point to prove," he says.
It was a point his side proved comprehensively with a 1-0 win. It was a shock result. Not only had the Indian team benefited from superior exposure and facilities, the Minerva team was nowhere near match fitness, having been preparing to go for a holiday break. "We knew we couldn't match the national team on fitness. So we kept our shape and hit them on the counter," says Bitan.
Much as Adam did with the CFA side of 2015, Matos did the same with the Minerva team this year. Six players were drafted in - including four who made the final 21. It was a decision that threw up further questions. On the two occasions when the anointed Indian team had met top-flight domestic competition, they had been beaten and incorporated members of the victorious side. The possibility of there being better players in India who had missed out on selection will remain a moot point.
The exposure tours would continue. The team traveled to Portugal where they suffered five losses in six matches. There were doubts over the quality of opponents and the fact that in at least one game -- a much publicized 2-2 draw against Benfica -- the opposition had chosen to substitute its entire side after half an hour.
Still, the team was continuing to draw ever closer. "The biggest difference is that they are not scared," says the team COO Yadav. "When I was in the Indian team, I remember how badly we would react when we realised we were playing an international team. We would be so worried. These boys look forward to it. When they were going to Europe, I asked them what was it that they were looking forward to. And without hesitation they said they were looking forward to playing Benfica."
It isn't just their abilities and self-belief on the pitch that have improved. "Travelling and training abroad has changed the way these boys think. It has improved their personality," says Yadav. Youngsters who were once reticent are far more outgoing. Crew-cut hairstyles have been replaced by Mohawks, Afros, samurai top knots and gold highlighted curls.
"When I first started working with these boys, they were very quiet. Everyone had the same haircut. Now when you see them, they all change their hair and fashion all the time like how the football stars do in Europe. It's very funny for me," says Bitan.
However, for all their travels and exposure overseas, nothing could mask the grim reality they would return to in India.
"We don't have a TV so we weren't able to watch any of Amarjit's matches," Umaykanta says. "When we learned that he was playing in the BRICS Cup, we would watch the match on Doordarshan at a neighbour's house."
Others will find it hard even to watch the World Cup. "My parents would want to watch Jaekson play for India, but it will be hard to buy a ticket to Delhi and a place to stay. Jaekson was saying that perhaps parents will be provided a ticket to Delhi but that has not been confirmed," says his brother Joneychand, who himself will be unable to travel to Delhi for he will be giving trials in order to cement a place in a Gangtok-based club for the second division of the I-League this season.
As such, most players have chosen to concentrate on their task at hand rather than be distracted by troubles at home. Their families too feel the same way. Ninthoinganba Meitei was not informed of his father's cancer diagnosis and failing health, and only returned home for a quick visit after his demise.
Umaykanta understands why a family might want to keep its sons out of the loop. "Over the last three years, Amarjit has only returned home thrice. We want it that way. Every time he returns here, his training suffers. He needs protein at this stage and so when he comes back, we will kill one of our hens for him but he still doesn't get the nutrition he needs. If he is here, he cannot concentrate," he says.
As the tournament headed closer, the boys have had their share of positive results. At a four nation tournament in Mexico this August, the team fought back for a 1-1 draw after trailing and then falling a player down against the Chile U-17 team. When the team returned home, they faced the Indian U-19 team - and beat them 3-1.
It was a result that was not a surprise for Yadav. "You can't begin to compare the facilities we got to what these children are getting. When they get so much exposure against the best teams playing against even senior teams in India doesn't seem hard. The players hold themselves to a higher standard now," he says.
But the job is not done. Beginning Friday, these boys will play the biggest three games of their careers so far. The opposition they face -- Colombia, Ghana and USA -- will likely be their toughest yet. Those players are bigger in size, learned their craft in a well-structured youth development program and have the weight of history behind them. The Indian team has a slim chance of success, but they will take it.
Sushil recalls a conversation he had with Nongdamba a few days back.
"I was telling him just how difficult the matches were going to be but he stopped me. He asked me to imagine a scenario where India had not got the chance to hold the World Cup. And what if he had not been unsatisfied with playing for DSK and not decided to attend trials for Minerva. And what if we had not won the I-League and the Indian team did not want to play a match against us. Yeh sab naseeb ki baat hai (It is a matter of destiny) that he got the opportunity to represent the country. But now that he has got the chance he has to make it count."