Eleven months out from the 2020 U-17 women's World Cup, to be held in India in November, the hosts face Sweden and Thailand in a tri-nation tournament starting Friday in Mumbai. As the Indian team gears up for the first multi-team competition of this nature in their backyard, ESPN looks at the promise and possibilities the friendly tournament might have in store.
Small gains ahead of a mega event
The Indian women might not quite blow you out of the water with supreme skill or flawless play at the tri-nation friendlies, but that's not what this tournament is about. The most important thing is that they are assured 180 minutes of game time against sides of the quality of Sweden and Thailand.
For a team that will be only the second from the country, after the men's U-17s, to feature in a FIFA event, the Indian women have considerable challenges in front of them. They have to embrace the pressure of a home World Cup, find cohesion in a team that's still scouting its best possible personnel under a new coach, and more.
But it's against opposition such as this that the team can truly test itself. If nothing, it provides a platform to identify if there are realistic hopes of creditable play or the odd upset at the World Cup.
Upsets unlikely in Mumbai
Considering the calibre of opposition, the Mumbai tournament is unlikely to throw up upsets in favour of the Indian team.
The senior national women's teams of both Sweden and Thailand played at the 2019 World Cup in France, their eighth and second World Cup appearance respectively. India, of course, are yet to qualify for one. And it's not just the disparity in quality at the senior levels.
India v Sweden: December 13
Sweden v Thailand: December 15
India v Thailand: December 17
Final (group winner v group runners-up): December 19
Sweden are one of the flagbearers in the women's game with more than 23 appearances in major tournaments, including 10 Euros and six Olympics, and have, according to their U-17 women's coach Pär Lagerström, clearly defined pathway programmes.
"Even from seven-year-olds there are girls teams, playing with hundreds of girls all the way up to the A teams. There are youth teams and academies on the girls' side, and home leagues," he said at the pre-tournament press conference on Thursday.
Thailand U-17 women's coach Sarawut Suksawang said his country has a well-outlined sports-school structure through which players are scouted internally via school and youth games to form the Under-16 and Under-17 teams.
India, on the other hand, do not have an organized national league or championship yet at the youth level, although the AIFF belatedly organized a four-team U-17 women's championship as a sort of feeder tournament for the World Cup.
The federation also organises Baby Leagues -- open to both genders (varying age groups starting from U-6s to U-12s compete in these state-level tournaments) -- but these will take a while to have a material impact at senior levels.
Thomas Dennerby, the India women's U-17 head coach, however, is hopeful of a rewarding campaign. He believes it would be a success for the India probables "if we get a draw against Sweden...and maybe a victory against Thailand." "There will be four new girls in the next camp after the new year. If there are more good players, we will call them to the camp and give them a chance [to make the World Cup squad]," he added.
The Dennerby masterplan
The 60-year-old Swede, who took up the role with the India U-17 women's team last month, has quite the CV to back him up. In seven years with the senior Sweden national side, he guided them to a third-place finish in the 2011 World Cup and the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics.
Fresh off a stint with the Nigeria senior women's team, Dennerby, however, has his task cut out in India. "This will be the first match-experience against another country for the team since my arrival," he said on Friday, before elaborating on the style of play he wants the India U-17s to adopt.
"I want us to be more open offensively and very strict defensively. I want us to have a good passing game where the players know which spaces to come into, where you want to attack and when to play the crucial passes. In defence, you have to play as a unit and you have to be compact in order to keep the opposition away from the scoring zones."
The fitness levels of the 22-member squad, Dennerby said, was one of the key aspects his team was working on.
The India squad
Goalkeepers: Manju Ganjhu, Anshika, Tanu
Defenders: Purnima Kumari, Jyoti Kumari, Nirmala Devi, Shilky Devi Hemam, Kritina Devi, Nisha, Astam Oraon
Midfielders: Martina Thokchom, Priyangka Devi, Babina Devi, Amisha Baxla, Aveka Singh, Kiran, Daisy Crasto, Sunita Munda, Mariyammal Balamurugan
Forwards: Sumati Kumari, Lynda Kom, Sai Sankhe