“I can feel the adrenaline as the tournament gets closer. This feeling is fantastic.”
Luis Norton de Matos, the coach of the Indian team, was shifting in his seat as he uttered those words. India begin their campaign in about 10 days, the first side from the country to play in a FIFA tournament. The Under-17 World Cup is not a marquee event, but that will not dampen the enthusiasm of everyone around the team. It is a truly momentous occasion for the country.
But enthusiasm can only take you so far. Matos is aware of his team’s limitations. “Portuguese, Spanish, German players started playing competitive football at the age of six-seven years. Playing every week for points, for 10 years. We don’t have this.”
And this is the reality with which India grapples. Former coach Nicolai Adam — who was in charge of the team for two years before complaints by the squad about his abusive behaviour forced the All India Football Federation into appointing Matos this February — wanted his side to at least “not get killed” when the tournament came around. For his Portuguese successor, the minimum expectation is that the team “plays to win”.
Matos is clear, however, that they are no obliged to win. He is excited but he knows that hopes should be tempered. By any reasonable estimate, India are the weakest team in the tournament. However, the coach and AIFF president Praful Patel were at pains to emphasise that the team is in a good place. Patel pointed out what has changed, “We had to change the coach because boys were not mentally happy. The ‘happiness index’ matters.”
Arguably, by the time this tournament comes to an end, the AIFF president is likelier to be happy about its smooth organisation rather than the exploits of the Indian side. However, Patel wants the gains to be secured. The plan is to develop this side together, as a unit. India have formally bid for the 2019 FIFA Under-20 World Cup. The president wants to secure a long-term legacy, for himself and the team.
However, anybody well versed with the ways of the AIFF would know that plans are often made and shelved. Even if India were to earn the right to host another World Cup in two years’ time and Matos remains in charge, it is unlikely that a sea change will occur. Continuity is often found to be just one of the buzzwords football administrators in this country love to lean on.
At the press interaction in New Delhi on Tuesday, Patel also revealed that the construction of a national centre for excellence will begin sometime next year. The cost of the project will be upwards of Rs 100 crore. It will be the home of Indian football, with all national sides training at what is conceived to be a complex with elite facilities.
So, there’s already a sense that the Under-17 World Cup will be used as a platform for bigger things. One’s optimism about these plans depends on the faith one has in the AIFF. If its record were put to test, a healthy dose of scepticism must be advised.
More immediate concerns, though, will colour India’s campaign. The team’s results in friendlies have generated differing opinions and, in many cases, the matches were not reliable indicators. The selection of opponents has come in for criticism, particularly because very few of those sides were of the level which India are expected to face next month. Yet, the AIFF president feels that the preparation could not have gone better.
“We have left no stone unturned. The team has been built over three years. We oversaw a continuous scouting process which was going on until a few months ago. The coaches, both past and present, have done a fine job.”
Well, the jury is still out on that. But Matos is clear that his boys will play like “lions”. Heart, passion and strong organisation are likely to be the bulwark of this campaign. The side will look to compress space between the defence and midfield, with an emphasis on counter-attacking football. Matos was keen to stress that the pressure will be on the opposition to win.
Nothing to lose? Not really. The Indian team may assume that attitude but it is not that it has choices anyway. The opposition is likely to be in the dark about the 'Boys in Blue' but there is a sense that the hosts are still discovering themselves too. Do we know how good India is? Probably not. So it is difficult to build optimism on an obscure footing.
Of course, a raucous home crowd could add that extra zing to India’s football. The World Cup’s Local Organising Committee is insistent that the 58,114-capacity Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium will be packed for the hosts' games in New Delhi. The ticket sales have picked up significantly, with the tournament director Javier Ceppi confirming that the venue has already seen an unprecedented level of interest.
FIFA’s enthusiasm for the tournament has been obvious for a longer while and there is another high point in the offing. The AIFF president announced that the global body’s Executive Council will convene in Kolkata on 26 October. “FIFA would like to see India’s transition from a footballing nation of the past to a footballing nation of the future,” added Patel.
Over the next month, India will have to show that they can also be a footballing nation in the present.
Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 18:30 PM