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It will be important for the Indian players to enjoy the occasion rather instead of getting overawed. Photo: HT
It will be important for the Indian players to enjoy the occasion rather instead of getting overawed. Photo: HT

Fifa Under-17 World Cup: Will India finally find its feet?

Even though India will be the weakest team in the 2017 Fifa Under-17 World Cup, its participation will be a landmark occasion, sure to enhance the global profile of Indian sport

In a few weeks, India will host its first global football tournament, the 2017 Fifa Under-17 World Cup. It will be a landmark occasion which promises to boost the status of football in this country and also enhance the global profile of Indian sport.

It will signal the end of a long wait too. In the 77 football world cups held so far—including men’s and women’s events across senior and age-group football, over 87 years—India has neither hosted nor participated in one. All this will change on 6 October, when this year’s edition of the biennial Under-17 World Cup will kick off simultaneously with matches in New Delhi and Mumbai, two of the six host cities chosen for the tournament.

When the Fifa executive committee chose India as the host nation in 2013, the country broadly had two tasks at hand. The first was to prepare itself as host of the event. Barring a few minor hiccups, India’s preparations have been smooth and timely (as surprising and unbelievable as that sounds), with Fifa playing a key guiding role.

The second was to ready a competitive national team, which would go down in history as India’s first-ever to play in a football world cup. As the host, India have directly entered the 24-nation event with the other teams qualifying from their respective continental competitions. Naturally, this task was for India to figure out on its own. And, unsurprisingly, in a country where youth football has perpetually been stuck in its planning stages, this hasn’t been a smooth ride.

The All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) approach to fielding a national team for the World Cup has been peculiar, albeit necessary, when you factor in the absence of a structured youth system in the country. It has involved recruiting foreign coaches, scouting young talent over multiple phases and flying this selected group of players around the globe for “exposure trips" in search of better-quality opponents and year-round competitive games, which are currently unavailable in India.

Tours to Germany, Spain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), South Africa, Luxembourg, France, Norway, Italy, Hungary, Brazil, Portugal, Russia and Mexico have seen the U-17 team play over 60 friendly games against foreign clubs and national sides, as well as participate in competitive tournaments.

Preparations may have been elaborate but there’s no substitute for a functioning grassroots system. Four years ago, as debutants and hosts, the UAE too stockpiled its players and sent them overseas in the 15 months leading up to the 2013 U-17 World Cup. It finished the tournament with zero points. There are no short-cuts to success.

Poor planning and a lack of long-term vision have stunted Indian football’s growth for decades, especially at the junior levels. Whereas players develop a youth profile of 100-plus competitive games by the age of seven in top football-playing nations, India’s U-17 midfield linchpin Suresh Singh Wangjam only started playing when he was 11.

At the time India was selected as the host, it had no age group leagues running to cater to this tournament. The U-15 Youth League (now the U-16 Youth League) only came up in 2015. Thus, the AIFF had little choice but to take the approach it did. It was paying for the sins of its past.

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In February 2015, German coach Nicolai Adam, who had done sterling work with Azerbaijan’s age group teams, was appointed as head coach of the Indian U-17 team. Two years later, Adam would be forced to resign from his post after 21 players mutinied against him and submitted a letter of complaint to the federation, citing the German’s abusive behaviour with the squad. It would serve as a major setback to the team’s preparations, leaving the squad with a new coach—Portugal’s Luis Norton de Matos—only seven months before the tournament.

Adam played a key role in building and shaping this team from scratch—a task that was riddled with difficulties. “(Scouting) should be much easier," he had moaned, while citing India’s size as a major challenge. “There should be (youth) leagues in every state, from where you can pick."

Instead, the starting point for him were AIFF’s academies in Goa that selected players in 2014 from open trials and national festivals such as the inter-school Subroto Cup and the inter-state Coca Cola Cup (also called the Mir Iqbal Hussain Trophy). Within a month of joining, Adam had chosen 20 players from the 54 made available to him in these academies. He took them on their first exposure tour to Germany, but he had emphasized on the need to build a much larger pool of players for selection. By January 2016, this pool of players expanded to 36, half of whom were Adam’s own picks from the scouting trips he personally made across India.

The coach, however, could not both scout and coach players at the same time. He was assisted by Abhishek Yadav, a former national team player who had been appointed AIFF’s director of scouting in 2015 to streamline the scouting system. Yadav was also made the U-17 team’s chief operating officer the following year to focus solely on shaping the team for the big event.

“I’ve seen close to 10,000 boys for the U-17 side", Yadav told Mint earlier this year. He and his team of scouts have held several camps across the country, even multiple within states, to ensure accessibility for players from even remote areas. “A lot of the players in the current squad have come through this exercise." By mid-2016, more than half of India’s main World Cup squad—there was a “B team" as well—were found through nearly a year of these scouting ventures.

Yadav also initiated projects to reach out to talented Indian passport-holders living abroad. An online portal for overseas scouting, the SAI(Sports Authority of India)-AIFF Scouting Project, which allows players to submit their videos, has produced two players from the US and Canada. A scouting trip to Dubai too saw around 250 players turn up, though nobody made the final cut.

However, the process of U-17 scouting met with familiar obstacles. “Age cheating" has been the eternal bane of Indian football. When state associations were tasked with fielding their best players to face the national team in exhibition matches, the NorthEast XI fielded eight players over the age limit, including two players who were selected. An exercise to find better players from the region had become a waste of time and money. There was also the usual lack of alignment with national interests, which is evident even at the senior level. The Goan Football Association (GFA) was given two months to assemble their best players but failed to field a team, citing a lack of preparedness.

A few questions have been raised as well. In Shillong, the 50 players assembled for trials were rejected by Adam straightaway because they were too short. It may not have been an unreasonable choice, an experienced youth coach points out. “You have to meet physical criteria for selection along with technical ones," he says. “It is hard to find such players in Shillong." Yet, this was a failure at some level. Were the coach’s requirements not known to the organizers in Shillong?

In November 2016, with only a week’s notice, the AIFF had asked teams participating in the U-16 league to nominate three of their best players for trials. But with the league campaign in full flight at the time, most clubs chose not to send their best talent. It is odd, though, that the federation had to rely on the teams to choose players from a competition tailor-made for their scouts.

Four months later, U-16 champions Minerva Academy beat the national team by a solitary goal in a practice match in Goa. Minerva played a couple of over-aged players whereas U-17 coach Matos, in his first game in charge, changed his entire team at half-time. So while the result was blown well out of proportion, it did raise some concerns, especially when Matos selected six of Minerva’s players and let go of several from his inherited squad.

Minerva was the only Indian club team this U-17 team had faced up until two months prior to finalizing the squad, which begs the question: why have they not played against more Indian clubs considering that one game alone yielded six new players? It makes you wonder how many better players may have slipped under the radar.

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So, after two-and-a-half years of preparation, where does India’s U-17 team stand?

A dose of realism is the need of the hour. During his first year, Adam had said that the minimum target was to “not get killed". India will, by some distance, be the weakest team in the event. If India earns a draw against either the US, Colombia or Ghana—the other teams in its group—it will be a sensational achievement. If it wins a match, it would be nothing short of miraculous.

Results, though, should be seen as secondary. It’s the performance which counts. “We have to show the world that India can play good football," Matos said of the ultimate objective.

But keeping a lid on expectations will be difficult. In May earlier this year, the AIFF led the nation to believe that the Indian U-17 team beat its Italian counterpart, which the Hindustan Times later revealed was a team consisting of players from the third and fourth tiers of Italian football. A “historic" win, the media called it, as celebrities and athletes heaped praise on this team. It reflected India’s understanding of the sport; how far removed from reality would you have to be to believe that a globetrotting Indian football team can beat an Italian national side?

Last month, India held Chile 1-1 in a four-nation tournament which also involved Mexico and Colombia. Coach Matos said that it showed India “can achieve success". Joy Bhattacharya, the World Cup project director, called it a “full strength Chile" while Javier Ceppi, the tournament director, labelled it a huge result. The only problem? Chile put out a second-string side. Only two players who played both against Mexico and Colombia had been retained in the starting XI to face India. Colombia’s coach also went down a similar route. From the squad of 20 players, he played the same starting line-up against Mexico and Chile but started all nine bench players against India in a 3-0 win (Mexico’s line-ups were unavailable but they beat India 5-1 anyway).

This is a problem with exposure tours: you cannot control how seriously the opposition takes you. In a much-publicized 2-2 draw against Benfica, the team from the famous Portuguese club made 10 changes every 30 minutes. A week later, with a stable line-up, Benfica beat India 3-0. Even in India’s 0-0 draw against eventual champions South Korea in the 2016 AIFF Youth Cup, the Koreans had made nine changes to the XI in order to rest their best players before the final against the US in two days.

The results of such matches, which are mostly played behind closed doors, count for nothing. “We progressed a lot but only in friendly games without points," Matos had said. Against five different teams in five different countries, India has scored 10 or more goals in a friendly match. Surely, there were better teams to play back home?

This U-17 team’s competitive record reads five wins in 31 matches (16%), none of which were against teams of any world cup standard (two of them were club sides). Of the 23 other teams participating in the upcoming tournament, India has played against six—once each versus the US, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Chile and thrice against Iran—resulting in six defeats and the aforementioned draw against Chile which, without the hyperbole, should still be considered a decent result.

There were other notable results too. India thrashed fellow Asian minnows Bahrain (5-0) and Lebanon (6-0) to qualify for the Asian U-16 Championship, where a commendable 3-3 draw against Saudi Arabia was India’s sole positive result. A narrow 1-2 defeat to Uruguay, with a majority of opposition players going on to play in the World Cup qualifiers, was a decent result too. And so was a 0-0 draw against Macedonia, a team which may be far from the best in Europe but did include 16-year-old wonder kid Darko Churlinov.

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Transitioning from one coach to another would not have been easy for this U-17 team. Under Adam, the team played a bold, quick and direct counter-attacking game. “What I like about this team is that they go towards goal and create (chances)," Matos had told Goal after taking over Adam’s squad. But it left the team too open in defence and the new coach had different ideas.

“We play more directly than we would like to," he would tell reporters in July. “If we have the ball, we can rest. Otherwise we’re always running." A more possession-oriented game will be difficult to learn in a few months but India, under Matos, is expected to be much more compact. “India’s strength lies in its defensive structure," Chile’s coach Hernán Caputto had pointed out.

Under Matos, India’s playing XIs have been kept a bit hush-hush. Match reports too have been hard to find. Mint’s repeated requests for the list of 35 World Cup probables that were submitted to Fifa last month received no response from the federation. This list will be narrowed down to 21 for the final World Cup squad before 21 September.

However, the core of the team is expected to remain largely the same. Wangjam will marshal the troops from midfield. His 97th-minute penalty against Saudi Arabia in Goa exemplified the calmness he brings to the team. The team’s most exciting talents, though, are Komal Thatal (a dynamic winger), Aniket Jadhav (a striker) and Boris Singh Thangjam (a full-back who thrills going forward). Thatal’s signature move sees him dribble inside from the left flank and take a shot—goals against Brazil, Uruguay and Malaysia were all scored in similar manner. India will look to Jadhav for goals but he’s also adept at creating chances for his teammates, while Thangjam’s forward bursts are often the first point of India’s quick transitions from defence to attack.

Amarjit Singh Kiyam, who was chosen as captain by the squad through a vote, Ninthoinganba Meetei, another who’s been with the squad for two years, along with Jeakson Singh (who prefers “Jackson" on his jersey) and Nongdamba Naorem, two more Minerva players, will be the spine in the midfield alongside Wangjam. Rahim Ali and Rahul K.P. will support Jadhav upfront.

In defence, Anwar Ali, another Minerva boy, will play centrally alongside either Jitendra Singh or overseas recruit Namit Deshpande, while Thangjam and Sanjeev Stalin, whose skill set includes taking free kicks, will be the first-choice full backs. Goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, the penalty-saving hero versus Saudi Arabia, remains India’s number one choice with Prabhsukhan Singh Gill and the towering Sunny Dhaliwal, who renounced his Canadian citizenship to play for India, the likely reserve goalkeepers.

Come October, some of these names will be more renowned. It will be important for these kids to enjoy the occasion rather than get overawed, since the crowd in Delhi, where India will play all of its group stage matches, will be the biggest this team would have played in front of. There is unimaginable pressure on the players, seemingly burdened with expectations of “inspiring a generation" of footballers and becoming the “catalyst for change".

Just how India’s World Cup footballers cope with all of this remains to be seen.

India play against the US on 6 October, followed by matches against Colombia on 9 October and Ghana on 12 October.The World Cup final will be played in Kolkata on 28 October.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect changes after India’s final U-17 squad was announced.

Akarsh Sharma is a business manager who spends much of his free time writing and researching on sport. His writing is collated on akarshsharma.com and he tweets @Akarsh_Official

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