Junior Girls' National Football Championship: Jharkhand's Sumati Kumari stands tall among U-17 World Cup probables

Jharkhand continued its stupendous run to storm into the final of the Junior Girls' National Football Championship, by cruising to a 3-0 win over Gujarat in the semifinal and will meet Himachal Pradesh, which defeated Haryana 1-0, in the final. The tournament is a selection trial to pick the national team for the 2020 U-17 World Cup, which will be hosted by India.

Jharkhand's star striker Sumati Kumari in action in the Junior Girls' National Football Championship semifinal match against Gujarat in Kolhapur on Monday.   -  Shyam Vasudevan

Fifteen-year-old Sumati Kumari is a picture of calm as the full-time whistle blows. While her team-mates jump with joy and embrace one another, she displays a maturity beyond her years. She looks up to the heavens, exchanges pleasantries with the opposition players and the referee, and heads to the touchline to grab a bottle of water. Her demeanour gives you little idea of what has happened over the course of the last 90 minutes.

Sumati went on a rampage to power Jharkhand into the final of the junior girls' National Football Championship by scoring two goals and crafting a fine assist in a 3-0 win over Gujarat at the Polo Ground here on Monday.

The attendance here is sparse and a pair of dogs decide to add to the numbers. They go on a casual stroll across the Gujarat goal during the game. They appear keen to join the proceedings, but are swiftly shooed away. Sumati, though, is not perturbed by the jaywalkers.

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A pair of dogs take a casual stroll across the Gujarat goal.   -  Shyam Vasudevan

 

The lanky forward has been the star of the tournament and has scored a stunning 17 goals in four games. Displaying phenomenal footwork and a knack to run into spaces, she opened the scoring with a looping strike in the sixth minute. Standing at least a head taller than the opposition defenders, she's a constant terror on the right flank. The Gujarat coach, noticing that his defence was struggling to deal with her fancy footwork and pace, tries to egg them on, but there's little he can do from the touchline.

Sumati bags her second goal of the morning after running into space and finishing a fine move three minutes after her first, and the Gujarat defence is in tatters. The striker goes on to craft a delicate pass for her team-mate Astam Oraon to score in the last minute of the first half to make it 3-0.

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The girls are out here to impress as there is a lot at stake. In attendance are senior national women's team coach Maymol Rocky and assistant coach Chaoba Devi, who are here to scout talent and form a team ahead of the 2020 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup to be held in India. This is perhaps the biggest platform for these young girls and you can tell they're hungry to make it to the Indian team. Every tackle is fiercely contested, every aerial ball is a battle and the girls show no signs of relenting under the beating sun.

Though it's a disappointing loss, Gujarat midfielder Drishti Pant hopes that she would receive a call to the national team. "It would truly be a dream come true," she says with a glittering smile. "I'm 75 per cent confident of making the team," she adds.

The second semifinal sees a derby of sorts between Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. It's learnt that a few of the Haryana players have joined the Himachal side and a tense battle is on the cards. On paper, there's not much that separates the sides. Both sides go on to play a very similar style of football and cancel out any rare openings, leading to no goals in the regulation 90 minutes.

Haryana goalkeeper Anshika has been the driving force behind her team. She's barking instructions from the box, ensures her team shows no cracks in defence and is the first to identify any threat to the goal. Every time she wins the ball, she yells "team up” and the defence races forward. But there's little she can do as Poonam's header in the last minute of added time sneaks past her and hands Haryana a narrow 1-0 loss.

Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh will lock horns in the final, which will be held here at 3:30 pm on Wednesday.

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