It was just less than a year ago when dark clouds of doubt hovered over the India U-17 Men’s National Team that was, at that time, participating in the SAFF U-17 Championship in Sri Lanka. A 1-3 loss in the last match of Group B against Nepal left Indian fans rather disappointed.
Fast forward another month, and not only had the Blue Colts won the SAFF U-17 Championship, beating the same Nepal side 4-0, but they had also sealed their berth on the continental stage, defeating the likes of the Maldives, Kuwait, Myanmar, and giving hosts, the mighty Saudi Arabia, a tough fight in the last match (a 1-2 defeat) in the qualifiers for the AFC U-17 Asian Cup.
On to the present day, and the same unit seems far more confident while taking on the junior teams of big clubs like Real Madrid, Atletico de Madrid, Getafe CF, UD Levante, VfB Stuttgart, and FC Augsburg in training games, as they now prepare for the tournament proper in Thailand next month. The question that plagues those closely following the matches of this particular team is, what changed? Was it really the flip of a switch?
The answer, from head coach Bibiano Fernandes, is a resounding ‘no’.
“In a way, it is in our culture as Indians to be a bit reserved in certain situations, and that is one of the biggest things that my coaching staff and I work on with every batch that we are put in charge of,” said Fernandes. “It’s important to communicate with your teammates on and off the pitch in football, and that is a culture that we have had to cultivate every time. It’s very important that these players build that, so that they can be good players as they go ahead.”
Not every player in a team would be an extrovert, and it can be especially difficult when a new player comes into a team, feels the India U-17 coach. The coaching staff of the India U-17 Team has devised different off-the-field exercises to help the boys familiarise themselves with each other and break the ice, so to speak.
“We have some exercises like making them speak about themselves in front of the entire team. Once that kind of interaction happens, the players, even those who are introverts by nature, start opening up to the rest of the team, and then you see the results on the pitch,” he said.
While the core of the team that won the SAFF U-17 Championship and had a successful qualification campaign for the AFC U-17 Asian Cup last year remains the same, there have been a number of new players who have joined the team since November. However, in terms of mentality, the team has progressed in unison.
“I could see the change, especially when we went to Spain and Germany. Just in the way they carried themselves and interacted with each other and with the staff. It was really nice to see them all open up, to express themselves,” said Fernandes. “Now, even during the training sessions, if an instruction is given to them, they show their inquisitiveness, they ask questions, which I always want from them as a coach.
“It’s of no use if a coach explains things to them and it just goes over their heads. If they are asking questions, it means that they are thinking about the game, that they are trying to work it out in their heads, and that ultimately leads to comprehension,” he said. “When they understand and finally see it working out on the pitch, then they begin to trust the coach’s judgement even more.”
One of the ways that the India coaching staff is cultivating a healthier environment for the boys is by giving them a sense of responsibility on and off the pitch.
“We have been teaching the boys about taking responsibility for oneself. Nothing speaks better than what happens on the pitch, and they have learnt that in a game of football, every team member has to be responsible for his own role in order for the team to do well,” he said. “The boys have really taken to this approach in both training and in matches.”
In fact, the taste of the big responsibility has been rotated around the boys during the training matches in Spain and Germany, with the captain’s armband being donned by multiple players.
“Rotating the captain’s armband is just one example. Other than that, we also rotate responsibilities in the bus, in the hotel, or regarding equipment,” said Fernandes.
‘Spain, Germany tour put India U-17s in good stead’
The Blue Colts have played training games against the junior teams of some of the best football clubs in Spain and Germany. However, the main focus remains, and possibly now intensifies on the AFC U-17 Asian Cup.
“As far as preparations go, the matches in Spain and Germany were two of the best that AIFF has organised as long as I’ve been a part of it,” said Fernandes. “We played a lot of quality teams in Spain, and in Germany, teams like Stuttgart had a lot of players who were not only in the Bundesliga, but also in the junior Germany National Team.”
The team also had the opportunities to be coached by local coaches at Atletico Madrid, VfB Stuttgart, and FC Augsburg, which ended up being a big learning experience.
“We had sessions on the training pitch from coaches in Spain and Germany, and also had some informative workshops where the boys learnt about nutrition and psychology. These are important aspects which they need to learn from this age itself,” said Fernandes.
“Fernando Torres (former World Cup winner with Spain, and current head coach at Atletico Madrid Juvenil A) also paid us a visit during a training session in Spain, and the boys loved interacting with him. They picked the brains of these coaches, which was really pleasing to see.”
The acclimatisation factor
The India U-17 Men’s National Team has been on the road for a month and a half now, and after the completion of the matches in Germany are now on their way to Thailand more than two weeks ahead of their AFC U-17 Asian Cup campaign.
“Going there two weeks ahead will be a big factor in terms of acclimatisation. Of course we got to play a lot of top level teams in Europe, but the conditions will be quite different in Thailand. The kind of surface where the matches will be played will also be different, so the two weeks will be very useful for us to acclimatise to the local conditions,” said Fernandes.
India have been drawn in Group D of the championship, where they will face Vietnam (June 17), Uzbekistan (June 20), and Japan (June 23).
“After playing in Spain and Germany, I feel that the boys are not too far from the level where we need to be. We have worked very hard to get to the level, and it’s now up to us to maintain that for the next few weeks,” Fernandes said. “It’s a tough group, but our goal still remains to get a few wins and emerge into the knockouts.”
India’s hawk-eyed coach has been closely following the fortunes of the three opponents over the months, and feels that his boys are hungry to do well in the tournament proper.
“We have played against Uzbekistan and Vietnam before, and they are, of course, good teams. Japan are a good team too, and they have quality players in every generation. They are playing somewhat of a different style this time, so it will be a different experience, but the boys are hungry to perform. I’m sure we’ll have some good matches for India,” he said.