Indian colts up for the long haul

Sports News

India may not have qualified for the U-23 Asian Cup, but investment and attention is paying off.

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Shared News: Updated: November 2, 2021 8:51:51 am
Indian team after win over Kyrgyz Republic 4-2 in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers. (Twitter/Indian Football)

Between mid-2015 and mid-2017, Indian football’s Class of 2000 crisscrossed 18 countries in four continents, accumulated more than 2,00,000 air miles, played 100-plus matches and more than Rs 15 crore was spent on their exposure for the under-17 World Cup. It was the first time such commitment had been shown for an age-group football team in the country.

Last week was some sort of reassurance that the investment hasn’t gone to waste.

The core of that team got together for the qualifiers of the under-23 Asian Cup in Fujairah, UAE, which concluded over the weekend. India U-23 upset Oman (2-1), frustrated the hosts before conceding a late goal and losing 1-0, and got away with a goalless draw against the Kyrgyz Republic to finish second in their group.

This wasn’t enough for India to qualify for the 16-team U-23 Asian Cup. But it’s hardly surprising that India’s best-ever qualifying campaign, even though they fell short, was orchestrated by the same bunch of players who were also the first to play in a World Cup.

“This just proves that the project which started years ago with Indian Arrows and the FIFA U-17 World Cup was the right step in developing a new generation of players who will have more confidence on the pitch and not hesitate to face anyone,” coach Igor Stimac said.

There is enough evidence that India’s best-prepared age-group team is coming of age. Goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem is turning into a beast. Defensive midfielder Lalengmawia, or Apuia to his teammates, stands out with his ability to wriggle out of tight spaces and willingness to stay with the ball. Suresh Singh Wangjam is showing leadership qualities that belie his age. The blonde-haired Rahul KP is making a genuine case to be included among India’s best wingers. And Vikram Pratap Singh, one batch junior, is already turning heads with his twists, turns and sprints.

“They didn’t look intimidated or fazed,” says Floyd Pinto, the coach of I-League club Round Glass Punjab. Pinto, who oversaw the development of these players during his time as India’s youth team and Arrows coach from 2016-2020, says he is impressed with the team’s ‘very progressive and positive’ approach – building from the back, comfortable on the ball even under pressure and an ‘organised and aggressive press’.

“With the senior team, and I know it’s different, there is a vast contrast in the way we approach say Nepal or Qatar. With the U-23 side, it wasn’t the case,” he says. “This tournament could be a sign of things to come for future U-23 tournaments and players who will eventually make their senior team debuts and take this confidence and positivity with them.”

Change for the better

When India was awarded the U-17 World Cup, in 2013, they were playing catch-up with the rest of the world. In April 2015, when Germany’s Nicolai Adam was appointed the youth team’s coach, he explicitly said exposure trips were the only way to get Indian players to the level where they will be in a position to compete.

The communication between the AIFF management and coaches got better after former India international Abhishek Yadav got involved on the administrative side, Pinto says. “Together, they have developed a long-term plan for the age-group teams.”

The result was that the U-17 World Cup team, comprising players born in the year 2000, ended up becoming the most-travelled bunch at an age when most would otherwise be playing on dusty fields in nondescript parts of the country.

Playing against teams with varying styles from different continents, Pinto adds, improved the players’ game sense and, in turn, their ability to adapt. “Igor didn’t have that much time to prepare the U-23 team. But the education they’ve been given in their formative years has helped them pick up that information and execute it even in a short span,” he says.

Playing catch-up

It is an indication of how cut-throat international football is that even after all the investment, India’s youth teams are unable to break into Asia’s elite.

There is a school of thought that the country’s top-down approach – hosting a big-ticket event to have a trickle-down effect on the grassroots – has failed; the number of matches a youth player gets domestically remains much lower than what is standard practice globally. It is argued, however, that the tours abroad are to compensate for the lack of quality games at home for the cream of India’s youth players in the absence of a fool-proof structure.

Mandar Tamhane, the chief executive of Bengaluru FC, says continuity in youth programmes will be essential for India to meet what should the country’s first target – to be among the top eight in the continent. “Youth programmes are about continuity,” says Tamhane. “We prepared for the 2017 U-17 World Cup by playing a lot of games against varied and quality opponents knowing that we are going to play in one. So, why can’t we prepare the same way with the thought to qualify for one?”

The batch that followed the one that competed in the 2017 edition played roughly 35 international games in the build-up to their U-17 World Cup qualifier. Yet, that wasn’t enough. In the quarterfinal of the AFC U-16 Championship in 2018, India lost to South Korea 1-0, underlining the gap that is yet to be bridged.

The pandemic scuttled similar trips for the groups that followed but plans are already afoot for the upcoming batches, which will be put into motion early next year.

Tough road ahead

Still, there is no guarantee that these small steps at junior levels will translate into something big with the senior side because of lack of game time at the club level.

Most of the current under-23 players have secured contracts with Indian Super League sides. Some, like Dheeraj or Suresh, are regular starters for their clubs, Goa and Bengaluru respectively. But if the previous seasons are anything to go by, a majority of them will end up warming the bench for more than half the season.

Tamhane says the “clubs will play an important role in the transition process of these players because apart from the league, there’s no competition where they can get regular matches.”

“Ultimately, it’s pretty straightforward: if the player has the quality and intent, every manager will want him,” he says. “For example, we never thought Suresh would be a regular starter for the club just after two years. But credit to the boy because he has played under three coaches – two at Bengaluru (Carles Cuadrat and Marco Pezzaiuoli) and Igor at the national team – who have analysed him and feel he is an automatic starter in each team. So if a player shows intent, that’s half the battle won.”

Intent was what brought India’s juniors closer than ever to U-23 Asian Cup qualification. Their best, however, still wasn’t enough.