The historic header that almost wasn't
Seventeen-year-old Jeakson Singh has scored many goals in his playing career but few would be replayed and reviewed as much as the header he struck on Monday night at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi. The header he struck off a corner for India against Colombia in the Under-17 World Cup made him a part of history - the first time an Indian has scored at any FIFA world event. It was also an entirely serendipitous moment.
Jeakson wasn't even supposed to be in that position next to the near post when Sanjeev Stalin shaped up to take the corner. "We had practiced headers many times before," he told reporters prior to a training session on Tuesday. It had usually been defender Anwar Ali who stood at that mark. It was a split-second decision to switch things around against Colombia.
"Pehle practice kiya hua tha. Par hamne position change kiya tha (We had practiced before, but changed positions in the last second). Initially I was supposed to go to the second post and Ali was supposed to go to the first post. But he said that he would go to the second post and that I should go to the first post," Jeakson recalls.
The next few seconds are now iconic for Indian football. "I got then the feeling that the ball would be coming to me. I was being marked so I ran forward and the ball also came perfectly. So I jumped and scored," he says.
The magnitude of what he had done struck him almost immediately. "Yeh ek history hai. (This was history. But then immediately we saw the ball go the other way and we were very upset," he says of the subsequent counter that sealed a 2-1 win for Colombia. That bittersweet feeling endured for the rest of the evening. "On the one side, everyone was congratulating me and on the other side I was disappointed that we were not able to get the result we wanted."
Despite the loss, Jeakson had proved his worth. It was the ultimate response to those who had doubted him. There had been many. He had been let go from the national Elite Academy in Goa back in 2014 after it was felt he was not progressing as well as he should.
His stint at the Minerva football academy had been crucial to turning things around. The key he says was being given additional responsibility that forced him to learn quickly. "Bahut kuch change kiya(I have changed a lot)," he says of how he improved at the club. "In the past, (when he was in the Academy) there was no one to explain what role I had to play in my position. When I was in the Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA) we are taught basic training. After I joined Minerva, I played along with the senior team, I talked to them. I learned from them how to play. What I am supposed to do in the midfield? What to do what not to do. I changed my game then," he says.
He credits Minerva owner Ranjit Bajaj for giving him the opportunity to improve. "He is an owner but he treats us like brothers. He gave a lot of opportunities because he believed I can go far. They used to make us play with the seniors. I got a lot of competition playing in the Durand Cup and DSK Cup. After we won the (U-16) I League, I got a chance to play the national team and was selected."
But while he might have made the Indian team on the basis of his work in the midfield, it will be his prowess at the short corner that as truly made him the hero of Indian football. He isn't thinking about that just yet though. "I know it is historic but my life hasn't changed any way in 24 hours," he says.
He insists he is focused solely on the last remaining India game. "Accha perform karenge sabhi. Fight karenge positively. (Everyone will perform well and will fight positively) We won't make the same mistake we made against Colombia."