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What India and New Caledonia can learn from defeat

Into the first weekend of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, it has expectedly been a baptism by fire for the newcomers, barring Niger who showed both physical and mental resolve in beating North Korea in their opening group game in Goa on October 7.

India weren't so lucky against USA in front of a packed Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi on the opening night, losing 3-0 after keeping the damage down to just 1-0 in the first 45 minutes.

On Sunday evening, Oceania's newest member of FIFA New Caledonia suffered a heavier defeat, 7-1, to 2001 champions France in Guwahati. They were trailing 6-0 at half-time, but ended up scoring their first FIFA goal at any level in the second half, besides seeing their goalkeeper Une Kecine save a penalty.

"The result was expected. We had watched France a lot on video, and knew what to expect," New Caledonia coach Dominique Wacalie said after the game. "But it is the first time for the team, and it is good for the boys to learn the gap between them and top level football."

How do a group of boys, none older than 17, put behind the emotions of a heavy defeat, though?

"I always tell players to look at any experience, whatever game you play, very objectively. Finally, you need to have an improvement mindset," the Indian team's mental conditioning coach Swaroop Savanur had told ESPN before their opening match. "If you have an improvement mindset, whatever the result is, you are going to learn from that experience and you will put it in practice and implement it on a day-to-day basis and improving.

"You are always going to see improvements from any disappointments that occurred. That disappointment might be a simple mistake that they make on a practice day, but instead of carrying it, if I look at what I did wrong and if I try to change that (that is better). Of course, sadness and happiness are part of the game and that's why we play sport. But to finally come out of it and look at it objectively is the key for a player to keep improving."

Dominique Wacalie (L) looks on during a training session ahead of New Caledonia's opening match against France.
New Caledonia coach Dominique Wacalie said the 7-1 humbling at the hands of France was a good learning experience for his team

There's something to be said in favour of the U-17 World Cup format, which allows different confederations a fairly equitable distribution of teams at the finals. That is what makes it possible for teams like New Caledonia, or even hosts like India, to take part in an event of this magnitude and give their players exposure, a fact that has been emphasised by several coaches and experts ahead of this World Cup as well.

Savanur had said ahead of India's match, "They know what's at stake. At the same time, I have told them to enjoy this challenge, and to not focus on the result. The result is in nobody's hands, but what's important is (what is) in their control and what they can do. Help them focus on the controllable.

"That is the only way, any player, in whatever sport, can control whatever pressure is coming to him. Pressure is a natural part of the game. Once the thought process changes, from fearing pressure to accepting pressure, that's when a solution starts arising in your mind about how you can deal with the pressure and give your best."

A good example of that came in muggy Guwahati, when New Caledonia turned what looked like a potential double-digit defeat at half-time into what was effectively a 1-1 result for the second half. It was a performance that drew praise from France coach Lionel Rouxel too, while Wacalie spoke of his team's emotions at the saved penalty.

"Our goalkeeper showed his capability. We are starting out at this level, but they showed how they can work," he said. "It [the saved penalty] was a huge joy, because all of our players are amateurs. To save a penalty against a top team like France -- it could have been Brazil, England or Spain -- it was special for us all, players and support staff alike.

"We just have to focus on our next game, and leave this result behind," said Wacalie, no doubt hoping his team will embrace Savanur's theory about having an improvement mindset.

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