The Indian U-17 women’s football team ended its maiden FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup campaign with three morale-sapping losses to the United States of America, Morocco and Brazil.
“My feeling from the side was that girls were a little bit too nervous. They couldn't really handle the situation of playing their first World Cup game,” coach Thomas Dennerby had said after India’s 0-8 loss to the USA in the opening fixture.
On Monday, the young Blue Tigresses left the field in tears, ending their campaign with a 0-5 loss to Brazil – their third in a row and conceded the most number of goals in the tournament.
“We got the chance to play against the United States, Brazil and Morocco and we are happy that we put up a fight against them and that our team supported us in every way possible,” said a bleary-eyed Kajol after the match.
Dennerby, trying to console the girls, also got emotional talking to the press.
“I am trying to make them a bit more independent every day because sometimes on the football pitch, you are really alone and I want them to feel free to take the decisions – use their best skills, enjoy their time on the field and work hard, of course,” he said.
Media reports, earlier, had suggested that the Indian youngsters were left without the services of a sports psychologist right before the tournament as the players had expressed their reservations about the earlier available expert in a letter to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in mid-July.
“I was told that the players had given in writing that the existing psychologist was not up to the mark,” Shaji Prabhakaran, the newly appointed AIFF General Secretary, told Sportstar. “But it happened before we took charge of the Federation. Now, we cannot change that. And when the players have demanded, they have rightly decided.”
Nicole Menezes, who first started working as a psychologist with the under-17 girls in 2020, said she continued to virtually work with the team till mid-September before the squad left for an exposure trip to Spain and had no idea about the players’ letter against her to the AIFF.
“I learned about it through the newspaper. I am still on a contract with the AIFF, and if I'm needed tomorrow, I will be more than happy to provide my services to them,” said Menezes.
“I was on a medical break (from around August 18). I had viral fever and with that came more complications, medical complications, which I couldn't address it over there. After that, I was ready to head back, but I didn't hear from anyone.”
Menezes has a Master's degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology from Brunel University London, a Master’s in Applied Psychology from the University of Mumbai and has worked as a sports psychologist for six years.
She started working with the U-17 team in July 2020, during the peak Covid-19 pandemic.
“That’s when I was first called into the team because the pressure was taking a toll on the mental health of the players,” she said. “I'm very thankful to the federation to consider this because we know how mental health is perceived in society and now awareness is coming.”
After the initial assessments, she had group sessions and one-on-one sessions, ranging from 15 to 45 minutes with the players.
“Initially, when you start and you're a part of a camp of this nature, many girls are playing for the nation for the first time, and there’s apprehension. So, there are a lot of things that come into the picture,” she said.
“After individual assessments, the analysis was made, and it was shared with the head coach and the team during our team meetings about how the team looks mentally. The areas that may need some work.”
Menezes said she was never aware of the players’ reservations about her.
“If I was made aware of it (before) or if the coach had been made aware of it, maybe we could have worked that out or we could have spoken about it or handled it,” she said.
According to reports, the players in their letter had complained about the sessions eating into their resting time and Menezes believes the players should have been made aware of the need for mental conditioning.
“When we speak about eating up the recovery time, I think we also need to understand that this is part of their training,” she said. “I found it very strange when I read that. We are talking about the under-17 team here. They are minors, so maybe they could have been guided a little bit by the management.”