The kids are alright: U-16 stars promise India bright future
There's a pause when India's U-16 coach Bibiano Fernandes is asked if he expected his team to win the Four-Nation Invitational Tournament in Serbia over the weekend, one that pitted India against Jordan, Tajikistan and the hosts.
"Looking at the teams, I didn't expect us to win," Bibiano says. "But I knew we would do well in Serbia. Everything was so well organised in our pre-tournament camp in Goa, and then we played in Spain against USA, Norway and the U-16 team of Valencia -- they were all good games. I was expecting a good performance."
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It has been a steady rise in profile, both for the 41-year-old former central midfielder as coach, as well as his wards, who were brought together originally to serve as the feeder team for the FIFA U-17 World Cup squad.
Bibiano, whose nous as playmaker for Sporting Clube de Goa was one of the consistent themes of domestic football in the 2000s, had just completed his AFC A license in 2016 and was part of the first scouting camp for the current team in Bhopal. He would take charge of the side in November that year, and 2018 will see this team compete at the AFC U-16 Championship in Malaysia, where India are grouped with Iran, Vietnam and Indonesia. They must make the semi-finals to book their place in successive U-17 World Cups.
"Iran are finalists [from 2016], and Indonesia and Vietnam are also good teams. We are working hard, and our first aim is to come out of the group stages and then win the quarter-finals," he says.
"The boys are showing the hunger and desire. They are different in character. I don't have to do much to get them ready mentally. I keep reminding them that this is a process, and they need to be humble and keep improving."
Their results echo Bibiano's belief in his team -- having beaten the U-16 teams of Egyptian clubs Al Ahly and Smouha away in April 2017, India won the SAFF U-15 Championship in Nepal in August, scoring 16 goals and conceding just two in the four matches played, with Vikram Pratap Singh winning the best player of the tournament. A month on, they went through a tricky AFC U-16 qualification group in Kathmandu unbeaten, beating Palestine and holding both Iraq and Nepal to draws.
The secret to the performances, Bibiano believes, lies in the current core group having played teams older than themselves since their early days together two years ago. The World Cup reserve team would meet senior teams of newly promoted clubs in Goa, while the U-16 team has regularly played against the U-18 teams of Indian clubs.
"It helps get them ready for physical battles. We found that in Asia or Europe, football is all about 1v1 battles on the field. If you win 1v1 battles in each position, then you dominate the game and are more likely to win it."
Bibiano also draws from his own experiences as a player, and likes to get his message across in a gentle manner. "I am a player and I know how a player feels when a coach speaks loudly to them or shouts in front of everybody," he says. "I put it in a respectful way. I do a lot of one-on-one meetings. I give them the respect they deserve, and in return they give it back to me."
This is an exciting Indian team in the making, and they showed plenty of character in the tournament in Serbia, held at the national federation's training centre in Belgrade. India trailed Jordan early in the opening game, before Mumbai-born striker Ridge D'Mello set up his partner Rohit Danu from Uttarakhand for the equaliser. Vikram, who began as an attacking midfielder but now operates on the right wing, then brought India a 2-1 win.
After holding Serbia (erstwhile Yugoslavia have been European finalists at U-17 level, and also made another U-17 World Cup as bronze-medallists) to a goalless draw, India addressed their coach's chief concern in style.
"We create a lot of chances, but we need to work on finishing," he says. "In the last match, we got lots of chances and scored four goals. If they start believing and keep working hard, they will improve."
Three of those goals came inside the first 10 minutes -- defenders Lalchhanhima Sailo and Shabas Ahmed shared two, while midfielder Givson Singh got the other. After Tajikistan had pulled two goals back by half-time, Danu put the match beyond the reach of the opposition, giving India the tournament.
There were individual awards for India too, with Lalbiakhlua Jongte picking up the best goalkeeper award and Danu adjudged the best player. What's more, Serbia is likely to invite India for another Four-Nation Tournament soon, with Australia and Saudi Arabia as the other contestants, ahead of the AFC U-16 Championships in Malaysia.
"As soon as we won the last match, I told them that this is just a process, and we are focusing on Malaysia. We have to work hard. Just be humble, stay focused, (because) this is not our target.
"I just remind them that this (AFC) is a big competition, and no matter how good you are today, you have to work hard and get better, because there are other players who are working harder every single day. You need to be at your best to beat them."