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To grow football, play more football

FIFA Under-17 World Cup
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For India's U-17s, 'Arrows' route is way ahead

FIFA Under-17 World Cup
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After climbing ladder, India hit the wall

FIFA Under-17 World Cup
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Ghana U17Ghana U17
India U17India U17
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Smells like teen spirit

India U17
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Smells like teen spirit

It's sometimes hard to forget these players are just teenagers who have to cope with an incredible amount of pressure

But can they do it on a muggy evening in Delhi/Kolkata/Kochi/Goa?

Watching teenagers run themselves into the ground on a full-size pitch for 90 minutes gives room to rework that old English football saying, and makes the football - already skillful and attractive - even more impressive.

The frantic, furious final few minutes of the India-Colombia match, when the match was won and lost, was scarcely believable for the way the players maintained their skills level and, in Colombia's case, their focus and composure.

USA's coach John Hackworth spoke about it after Monday's match against Ghana, which his team won with a 75th-minute goal. That match kicked off at 5 pm, when the sun was still high in the sky and the humidity at similar levels. "We were really deflated and tired after the 35-minute mark," he said. "But that always happens at this age group. The players just get tired a lot faster because they haven't physically developed completely."

Hackworth also called for "some consideration" - or concession - to the youth of the players. And the collective groans - especially when India were playing - at each missed chance or shanked shot showed that the crowd didn't really give that leeway. To be honest, the level of skills was such that it didn't seem that these were players aged 17 or under.

But it's not just skills - the feints, the dribbles, the curling shot, the saves - that impressed. These are teenagers who have to cope with extraordinary pressures. Like booing. Imagine what the booing of a stadium crowd can do to a teenager? It happened, several times, during the India match when Colombia's players committed fouls real or imagined. They seemed to shrug that off and, if these kids can cope with this level of opposition support, they can play Argentina in a Copa final at the Bombanero.

Or imagine how to deal with a late, potentially match-changing goal. Again, that happened to Colombia yesterday and again they reacted with spirit, in the best possible way: instead of crumbling, wilting in the heat, they scored a sucker-punch match-winner.

Can they do it on a muggy evening in Kolkata? Yes, these kids certainly can

Then there's Ayo Akinola. He came on as a substitute for USA on Monday, played 27 minutes and scored the winner against Ghana. There are bigger names in the USA team but few have stirred up controversy as he has. He lives in Canada and plays for Toronto FC but chose to represent USA - a decision that caused a lot of angst among TFC and Canada fans.

Handling teenagers at the highest levels of sporting contest is always a delicate balancing act: when to expose them, when to protect, when to curb instincts, when to let them run free. Lionel Messi thrived in the nurturing environment of Barcelona, where he has been for two decades. At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson groomed his Fledglings with an iron hand but also the paternal affection they craved away from home.

Let's put their achievements in another context. Last week we ran a list of our staffers' sporting heroes at 17. We dropped the idea for the accompanying piece - what were we doing at 17? - because we realised that we were all either studying for exams, hoping to make it somewhere, or not, because we really had no hope. Either way our lives revolved round exams and lessons and mundane schoolwork.

To reiterate the point made at the start - these are kids playing adult football. There are no concessions for size or age on rules, on pitch dimensions, on the duration of the match. Many of them are still developing physically and mentally but the way they play, size doesn't really matter.

There were several occasions yesterday when India's goalkeeper Dheeraj fell over with the effort of throwing the ball out to his team-mates. It was funny the first time and perhaps the second, till you realised - he's actually punching way above his weight here.

I guess the last time most of us saw teenagers play competitive football would have been our kids' inter-class or inter-school competition. Blame it on that trick of time that makes us believe these are adult, professional footballers at work. Or just blame it on the fact that they are pretty damned good.

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