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Ghana play it cool in Delhi heat

New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, where Ghana play their opening game against Colombia
New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, where Ghana play their opening game against Colombia

The first press conference at every tournament, irrespective of the magnitude of the event or the prior experience of the host nation or city, involves a few teething problems. When Colombia and Ghana came out for the first such press scrum at the Nehru Stadium in New Delhi ahead of the U-17 World Cup's opening day, things were no different: bursts of music from dress rehearsals, errant microphones, over-eager photographers stepping up to take pictures. Soon, though, they focused on football and in the very first answer, two-time champions Ghana -- unfazed by the dry Delhi heat -- made their objective clear from this World Cup.

"I don't think any African team has taken over from us. We are still the leaders. We are here to prove ourselves," said Ghana coach Samuel Kwasi, when asked if the two-time champions in this event have just fallen behind some of their continental counterparts in recent editions.

Ghana lost the African U-17 championship final to Mali earlier this year, and their last semi-finals appearance at the U-17 World Cup came in Korea Republic in 2007. That also remains the only official meeting between Ghana and Colombia at this level. Placed in the same group, Ghana scored in each half to run out 2-1 winners then, but Colombia coach Orlando Restrepo wants to take this campaign one game at a time.

"All the teams in the world have their own styles and strategies. We take it that all teams in this tournament are strong. We are just concentrating on how we can improve the quality of our players. That's all we are concerned about right now," he said.

Colombia are returning to the U-17 World Cup after eight years, and their fifth and most recent appearance ended with a fourth-place finish, for a side where the attack was spearheaded by one of the Indian Super League (ISL) superstars, John Stiven Mendoza. They were the first team to have landed in India for this edition, and impressed those who saw them beat Minerva Academy's U-20 team 1-0 in a friendly last month.

Midfielder Thomas Gutierrez, seated beside his coach, emphasised that the entire team was focused on their opening match here, and not the senior team's World Cup qualification campaign, where they face a tough home game against Paraguay later tonight.

"Team Colombia is looking forward (to qualifying) for Russia, but this is a World Cup for me as well. There's no difference for us -- we have to perform the way we would at any World Cup," said Gutierrez. "We're happy to be here in India. We are looking forward to playing a good game. There's pressure because the hosts are in our group, but we will try to control everything so that we can play good football and move forward."

There was talk ahead of the World Cup about the weather and the pollution in Delhi, and that question was posed to both coaches. "I was here in July, in Mumbai for the draw. It's a beautiful country, very vast and diverse. Facilities are fantastic, but we hope we get used to the food before the end of the competition," Kwasi said. Restrepo stressed that in modern football, you always have to do your homework before you head out to a venue, saying, "Our focus is only on the football. We are not seeing that we are getting affected by this (pollution). We do not want to give any excuses, because we are just looking at football."

Gideon Acquah, who plays for Bokoafwa Tano FC, accompanied his coach, and was asked if he was aspiring to be the top scorer for the tournament. "If I top the goal scoring charts, I will be happy, although I am a defender," he said, with his last five words evincing peals of laughter from the press.

"A defender can also top the scoring charts," continued Acquah, perhaps aware of the fact that if Ghana score on Friday, they will become the first team in U-17 World Cup history to have scored in 22 successive games in the finals.

It's a long way to the final on October 28, but Kwasi has already set his sights on the title, having tipped his team to go all the way ever since the draw ceremony in Mumbai in July. Maybe the key will lie in the simplistic philosophy he put forward when asked about his first impressions of Delhi, one he would no doubt sell well to his young wards.

"For me, I see (that) the weather here is just like Ghana. There's a lot of sunshine in Ghana, and there's a lot of sunshine here. So we are right at home."

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