The 83rd minute of the match between India and Colombia was the culmination of India’s tournament preparations and aspirations all rolled into one giant moment. It hadn’t been easy till then, but the young ‘uns had fought unsuccessfully till then to level the match after Juan Penaloza had given Colombia the lead in the second half of the match.
For Jeakson Singh, it had never been an easy ride. Rejected twice by former India U-17 coach Nicolai Adam, it took a complete domination of his team by a Minerva academy side back in February to finally bring himself to the notice of current coach Luis Norton de Matos.
The Minerva captain didn’t start the first game as De Matos’s boys played out a 0-3 loss to the United States. They surely could have done with more physicality in the middle of the park and Jeakson, for one, wanted to make sure that the coach didn’t regret picking him.
As 48,000-plus at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium had witnessed Rahul Kannoly Praveen hit the post in first half stoppage time, some would have been forgiven for thinking that this was not going to be India’s day either.
But this was different from the US game. As many had praised their defensive organisation in the first match, it was upto the Indian boys to raise their game and so they did. Colombia once again outplayed the home team, as they had done in their 3-0 win in Mexico City but this time India didn’t wilt. They stayed organised at the back, as the South Americans struggled to find gaps in the Indian defence.
Penaloza’s first goal was a cruel reminder, though, that the best teams in the world have that quality where they can just turn a game on its head in the space of a few moments. The Colombian No 11 cut inside Sanjeev Stalin, shot into the far-left corner which Dheeraj Singh was powerless to keep out.
For Stalin, it was a moment to forget. The left-back had been with the team since its inception, one of its more dependable players and had a point to prove after being one of the nominees for captaincy at a vote last month in Goa.
When the moment came, the No 5 from Bengaluru, known for his set-piece deliveries, swung a corner in. It was a good one, nay, as it approached, it was one of his better ones.
As it came closer, the delivery appeared a belter. Low, fizzing and swung in from a left foot that was desperate to make amends. Colombia’s defence resolute till that moment, looked around nervously to ensure that they had not left any gaps in the box.
Lurking somewhere between the opposition captain Thomas Gutierrez and midfielder Etilso Martinez was India’s tallest player. He shifted his feet ever so slightly as the ball approached but could see that the ball was headed his way.
Jeakson had to make a choice, run forward to meet the ball with more power or stab at it while making a standing jump and hope to divert the ball goalside. He opted for the latter and as it came, met it with the side of his head.
The crowd, which saw the net ruffle, hesitated for a moment before celebrating the goal, making sure what they saw really happened, pinching themselves that the ball did indeed go in. India’s first-ever goal at a World Cup was here and now, crafted at the Chandigarh Football Academy, forged there, perfected at Minerva, showcased to the world.
As India’s defensive midfielder wheeled away in celebration, the young Blue Tigers across the pitch took a moment to cherish it. Rahul sunk to the ground with head in his hands, Dheeraj had a little quiet celebration of his own, the bandaged Boris Thangjam, substituted minutes earlier, gestured from the sidelines.
Delhi, for long maligned for being a non-sporting city, held up its side of the bargain by making so much noise that it would put a cracker-filled Diwali to shame. As the stadium bellowed, this is all they had come to see. That ‘1’ next to India on the scoreboard is all they had ever wanted and, that night, they would have given anything, absolutely anything at all, for it to happen. And it did.
The only ones who didn’t see the historic side of it were Colombia. With rapier-like precision, they were back in the lead less than 60 seconds later, Penaloza grabbing his second and deflating the crowd.
Having screamed hoarse for much of the 180 minutes India has played in the World Cup so far, Jeakson had ‘Lazarified’ the crowd, ensured that they went home with a memento, a story that they would tell years later with a gleam in their eyes – Oh yes, I was there when Jeakson Singh Thanoujam scored our first ever World Cup goal.
Even defeat fails miserably in its efforts to shake the feeling.