Long-term preparation of age-group national teams is now a regular and welcome feature in Indian football and can lead to a better future. For the U-17 World Cup to be held in six cities in India for the first time in October 2017, a squad of talented youngsters has been training for two years. Players from the northeast, including 11 from Manipur, are part of India's U-17 squad.
To increase the pool of talented players, "The Overseas Scouting " project was launched as a joint venture between the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Sports Authority of India (SAI). Sons of non-resident Indians could send videos of their matches and experts decided if they could be chosen for the national squad. Many applied and the mission was successful, as there are two new recruits in the Indian U-17 World Cup squad: Canada-based goalkeeper Sunny Dhaliwal and US-based Namit Deshpande. Dhaliwal, a six-foot-five-inch goalkeeper, has played for youth teams of Major League Soccer (MLS) side Toronto FC.
Chief Operating Officer of the Indian U-17 World Cup Squad, ex-international Abhishek Yadav, is positive about getting overseas players in the national squad. He says: "Overseas players bring diversity into the team. They have a different perspective; they have grown up playing against different nationalities, are used to a different climate."
The AIFF has left no stone unturned to prepare the Indian team for the U-17 World Cup. Former Chief Coach Nicolai Adam (Germany) had chalked out an extensive training schedule with exposure trips to various countries and tournament experience in 2016. They played matches in Dubai and South Africa and participated in the AIFF Youth Cup in May 2016 against quality teams like South Korea and USA. Next there were practice matches in Germany in June and July.
India was pitted in the group of death, in Group A of the AFC U-16 Championships, in September 2016, alongside the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Iran. They lost narrowly to Saudi Arabia and held UAE to a thrilling draw but lost 0-3 to Iran and failed to reach the semi-finals.
Adam's boys then participated in the BRICS U-17 football tournament in October 2016 in Goa where they could not get past the group stage, losing narrowly to Russia and China, but getting outclassed by a strong Brazilian side. The team next went to Brazil and finished third in the Atletico Paranaense U-17 International Tournament in December 2016.
On exposure trips, training camps, tournaments, kit and diet, the AIFF spent nearly Rs 8 crore ($1.2 million) in two years since Adams took over in July 2015. However, the imbroglio over Adam's departure in January 2017 stirred a hornet's nest. In 2015, when Adam came to India, he was hailed as the best age-group coach in the world. His commitment was evident as he did not return home to attend his father's funeral last year during the Asian U-16 championships.
The team was shaping up well and was playing modern football, relying on speed and building from the back. The only apparent weaknesses were absence of a consistent striker and at times lack of organisation in defence.
The AIFF show-caused Adam because of a letter signed by the entire U-17 squad complaining of physical and racial abuse by the coach and his assistant, Etibar Nizami Ibrahimov. Adam chose about 90 per cent of the players in the squad. So it is not logical that the coach and his assistant suddenly became hostile to them. Did the boys overreact to harsh words or did they simply rebel against a coach who was a hard task master?
If Adams was a ruthless and abusive coach, then the three Indians in the support staff should have intervened and either talked to the coach or reported it to the AIFF. These are some of the uncomfortable explanations that the Union Sports Ministry sought as they bore 30 per cent of Adam's salary, which was 12,000 euros per month, inclusive of taxes.
Player power finally prevailed and Adams and the AIFF parted ways by mutual consent, after the coach was given financial compensation. There were over a hundred applications for the vacant post, including famous ex-international from England Stuart Pearce. However the AIFF finally opted for the 63-year-old Portuguese coach Luís Norton de Matos who has coached the Benefica B team and the national team of Guinea Bissau during 2010-12 and was strongly recommended by Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho.
Matos is like a father figure to the players and has made the team play more possession football. But he is also very realistic. He has warned against great expectations. He said: "The difference between our team and the rest of the teams is enormous." Matos said that India has not played enough matches against national teams and lacks competitive tournament experience.
India is placed in a tough group, with the US, twice champions Ghana and Colombia. India's best bet of qualifying for the round of 16 is by finishing among the four best third-placed teams. The top two from the six groups qualify for the next round along with the four best third-placed teams.
(Novy Kapadia is a football writer and author of recently published book "Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football" (Penguin). The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)