For a sportsperson, donning the national jersey and representing the country is always considered a major achievement. No different is the mood in the India U-16 Team, who are certainly experiencing all such feelings and emotions as they fly to the picturesque country of Bhutan to participate in the SAFF U-16 Championship.
The players are no strangers to the beauty of the Himalayas, having set up camp in Srinagar for over a month before embarking on the flight to the Land of Thunder Dragon. However, on the flight to Thimphu, via Kathmandu, a certain peak called Mount Everest piqued their interest as most players rushed to the window seats to sneak a peek, perhaps sending an invocation to the Almighty to help them scale similar heights in football in the years to come.
Once they landed in the capital city of Bhutan, their focus shifted back to the rectangular green plot of land that would make or break their careers.
Head coach Ishfaq Ahmed, a former India international himself, believes in the importance of making a good start to the junior international careers of the boys.
“It’s an extremely important stage for all the boys here. This is the first time they will play international football at any stage. This is also the first time all of them will be travelling outside the country to play football,” said Ahmed. “I want the boys to enjoy the experience, but it’s also important for them to perform well here.”
India begin their campaign in the SAFF U-16 Championship against Bangladesh on Friday, September 2, 2023, with the match kicking off at 2.30 pm IST, followed by their game against Nepal on September 6. The top two teams in the group will make it to the semi-finals.
“It’s certainly the more difficult of the two groups but we will give our best on the pitch and try to make it to the semifinals,” said Ahmed. “Of course, we aim to play good football, something that the boys would enjoy, but we must also make sure that we get the results and then build from there.
The 40-year-old believes in allowing his players more freedom in order for them to play a better game on the pitch.
“I always believe in giving them freedom, in order to cultivate their creativity. Discipline is a key aspect of football of course, and we have aspects of that, but you also want to make sure that you don’t make it a jail-like environment,” said Ahmed. “We give them freedom in certain things, but we also put different responsibilities on their shoulders. It all comes down to that balance.”
While training in Kashmir, the India U-16s have played a number of matches against local sides, with some encouraging results coming in the form of a 3-2 win against Real Kashmir’s senior reserves side, and a 1-1 draw against the senior side of FC 1, a local side in the senior league.
“The boys have really started to grasp the concept of football that we are trying to play here. We want to play with high intensity, move the ball fast within one or two touches, and play a notch ahead of our opponents,” said Ahmed.
The former India winger also thanked the Federation for the long camp in Kashmir, where the team have had the opportunity to gel together.
“We’ve been lucky to have trained in Kashmir and then come to Bhutan to play in the tournament. The weather and altitude are quite similar to what we had in Kashmir, so the boys are already acclimatized to that,” he said. “Our matches here will also be played on artificial turf, which is what we trained on during our camp in Kashmir. I hope that these things help us achieve our ultimate targets.”
India’s Fixtures in SAFF U-16 Championship
September 2: Bangladesh vs India, 2.30pm IST, Changlimithang Stadium.
September 6: India vs Nepal, 2.30pm IST, Changlimithang Stadium.
September 8: Semifinals.
September 10: Final.