Wim Koevermans has an unenviable job. Coaching the Indian national football team, wallowing at 168 in the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) rankings, is never easy, but the 52-year-old former Dutch international is building from scratch in every sense of the word. First, Baichung Bhutia, long regarded as a player who was several notches above the rest of the team, retired from international football in January after a career spanning 15 years, leaving the team without its most consistent performer and leader. And it’s not just Bhutia—since Koevermans took over the team in July, it has undergone rapid changes, and over half the 20-member squad that lost the International Friendly against Singapore 2-0 on Tuesday, Koevermans’ first away match, comprised players that had been fast-tracked to national duty from India’s Under-22 and Under-19 talent pool.
“It isn’t easy,” Koevermans says. “The most challenging part is to maintain a minimum level of quality, to maintain a certain standard.”
But in some ways, Koevermans says, it also makes his job a more exciting challenge, and one in which he has complete control without having to deal with the baggage of the past. Koevermans got his first taste of India’s talent pool in the last couple of months, when he travelled the country to watch club football.
“We’ve scouted and created a list of lot of players in various positions,” Koevermans says. “We will follow and monitor their progress and position on a regular basis. We are in no mood to hurry.”
Koevermans has already got some success with the team; it won the Nehru Cup in Delhi in September for the third successive time. The tournament also provided a good testing ground for the team’s tyro players. Lenny Rodrigues, who made his debut for the Indian team in February, was outstanding in the midfield, U-22 player Raju Gaikwad cemented his place in the central defence alongside the more experienced Gouramangi Singh, and 22-year-old Robin Singh displayed his versatility in attacking positions.
“I have just begun my career,” Rodrigues says, “and the coach has been always by my side, always motivating me. I am a more confident player now.”
Midfielder Mehtab Hossain, one of the seniormost players in the Indian side now, believes that the younger players are gelling well with the team.
“When you attack or defend, your rival never keeps in mind whether you are a senior player or not,” Hossain says. “He (Koevermans) made us more cautious that football is a team game, and everyone has responded well to that.”
Despite beating Cameroon in the Nehru Cup final, a team that is ranked 109 places higher, India’s position in the Fifa rankings did not improve because the Nehru Cup is not a Fifa-approved tournament. Teams also need to play international matches on pre-fixed Fifa “dates” to score ranking points, something that India has not done in the past. Koevermans plans to change this—he has drawn up a plan to make India play International Friendlies on Fifa dates, which started with the Singapore match, though without the intended result.
“We have the potential to be around the 100 in the rankings,” says India’s goalkeeper Subrata Pal. “We need to play on all Fifa dates for the next 18 months for that. We are much better than 168.”