Global age-group competitions can often give expression to the dreams and desires of children wanting to bring laurels to their nation. The U-17 women’s World Cup in India, too, will realise the dreams of many.
USA’s Amalia Villarreal already has a story to tell and perhaps will conjure more memories in India in October that she can cherish in the future. Aged seven, she sketched herself in the national football team’s jersey with a gold medal around her neck when asked to sketch her deepest desire on paper. Ten years later, she realised her dream, helping USA qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup by winning the U-17 Women’s CONCACAF Championship.
She was the joint-highest goal scorer for her team, scoring eight goals, including five against Puerto Rico in a 13-0 drubbing — a USA record for most goals scored in a game at any age level.
The seventh edition of the FIFA U-17 World Cup will be held in three cities of India — Mumbai, Bhubaneswar and Goa — from October 11 to 30.
All the group-stage matches featuring the Indian team – placed in Group A – will be held at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. The other teams in Group A are Brazil, Morocco and the USA.
Fresh bunch of talent
Initially scheduled for 2020, the U-17 World Cup was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. India earned direct qualification as the host but the selection suffered a blow after the postponement.
In 2020, head coach Thomas Dennerby had selected a squad for the World Cup that played against the U-17 national team of Romania in Turkey. The players, recruited from junior and sub-junior tournaments as well as the U-17 Women’s Championship of 2019, returned unbeaten with a win and a draw.
All goalscorers from that squad – Priyangka Singh Naorem, Mariyammal Balamurugan and Sumati Kumari – are over 17 now. The Indian team now has new players chosen from the sub-junior national championships.
The core of the team showed potential in the 2022 U-18 Women’s SAFF Championship as India won the title for the first time.
Lynda Kom Serto, the leading scorer and the most versatile player of the tournament, leaves defenders helpless with her off-the-ball positioning as well as her aerial ability. Glimpses of it were visible in the U-17 Women’s Championship two years ago when she won the tournament with the Lionesses.
The 17-year-old has continued to get better and will likely be the head of a 4-2-3-1 formation that Dennerby preferred in the SAFF U-18 Championship.
Jharkhand’s Anita Kumari and Nitu Linda will be commanding the wingplay on either side in the absence of India’s best U-17 attacking midfielder Amisha Baxla, who has already crossed the eligible age.
India has since toured Italy and Norway for the 6th Female Torneo and Open Nordic Tournaments, respectively. Against Faroe Islands in the Open Nordic Tournament, it lost 2-4 in penalty shootouts in the final.
In the midfield, India will be without Martina Thokchom, who impressed in the senior Women’s SAFF Championship. As a result, Shilky Devi, the youngest player ever to play in the AFC Women’s Asia Cup, will have to be a deeper midfielder to nip counter-attacks in the bud and begin India’s attacks during transitions.
India appears most vulnerable in its defence.
India conceded 20 goals in its last six matches. Brazil and USA, on the other hand, have been prolific, scoring 33 and 58 goals, respectively, in the qualifying tournaments.
India will take heart from the fact that countries from the Asian Football Confederation have won the title four out of six times. Yet, progressing past the group stage might just be an uphill battle for Dennerby’s side as the USA and Brazil are in the same group.
India’s group-stage challengers
USA enters the tournament after winning the CONCACAF U-17 Championship for the fifth time. In seven games, the team scored 58 goals and conceded just one (in a 2-1 win against Mexico in the final).
Villarreal, who finished as the country’s joint-highest goalscorers in the U-17 Championships, will lead the attack.
It will be interesting to see whether captain Riley Jackson, who won the best player in the Championship, plays in the No. 10 position or pushes up the field to pair up with Amalia and Taylor Suarez (No. 9).
Brazil, the record four-time winner of the South American U-17 Women’s Championship, will be making its sixth appearance in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. Its most successful runs came in 2010 and 2012 when it reached the quarterfinals and saw stars emerge from the tournament. Rafaelle Souza, who played in the 2008 edition of the tournament, led her team to the Copa America Feminina title this year.
The Seleção have looked menacing in counter-attack and their forwards – Johnson (9), Aline Amaro (6), Dudinha (5) – were the top three scorers of the U-17 Championship.
Johnson has been the most dangerous striker of them all, having already attracted interest from several clubs outside Brazil. She is the first female player with a release clause of USD 10 million.
Morocco, like India, will make history, playing in a Women’s World Cup for the first time in any age level.
The young Atlas Lionesses secured a spot in the World Cup after beating African powerhouse Ghana in the final round of qualifiers.
Forward Yasmine Zouhir has been the standout performer for the Lionesses in qualifying, scoring five goals in the World Cup qualifiers.
The 17-year-old plays for AS Saint-Étienne Women’s U-19 team and can play both as a forward and as a midfielder.
For Zouhir, the only player from her country to be nominated for the CAF Young Player of the Year (women), the U-17 World Cup may just be the perfect launchpad for a career in the big leagues of Europe.
Other powerhouses in the World Cup
The World Cup in India will also present teams opportunities to settle scores. Mexico, which lost to USA in the U-17 Championship final, will depend on its key striker Tatiana Flores to try and claim the coveted trophy.
In the other groups, Germany and Spain – the winner and runner-up, respectively, of the 2022 UEFA Women’s Under-17 Championship – will be some of the most important sides to watch out from Europe.
Real Madrid forward Carla Camacho will be the strongest weapon for the Spaniards, while Mara Alber, the Hoffenheim and Germany forward, will be the central point of attack for Germany. Both players were joint-highest goalscorers in the Championship.