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Young India look to come of age at SAFF Championship

The Indian Under-20 team has been making a lot of noise lately, both on and off the pitch. Not only did they secure a 2-1 win over an Argentinian team at the U-20 COTIFF Cup in Spain last month, the highlights of that match has been viewed more than 1.1 million times on the AIFF's official channel on YouTube. 

It is with the backdrop of this recent upswing in interest -- the Indian U-16 boys also registered memorable wins during a West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) invitational tournament in Jordan around the same time -- that the U-23 team, coached by Stephen Constantine, will begin its SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship defence in Dhaka, starting Tuesday.

The idea behind fielding younger players

India have won seven of the 11 SAFF Championships played, inherently not an age-group competition. With participation at the AFC Asian Cup looming in January, Constantine would have felt the time was ripe to take a younger team to Bangladesh for the SAFF, where India are grouped with Sri Lanka and 2008 champions Maldives. Afghanistan, India's biggest rivals in recent years and their opponents in the last three SAFF finals, have now joined the central Asian federation, and that theoretically leaves the field weaker.

Besides, as former India international and AIFF technical committee member Henry Menezes points out, eight of the 24 players called up by Constantine during their last international assignment, the Intercontinental Cup at home, were 23 and under in any case.

"There has always been a problem of continuity, but today with our system and structure, we have had the U-20 and U-16 teams performing well. Between the senior team and these junior teams, there has to be one segment where we can identify at least about 25 players who can make that transition into the senior team," he says. "They are all playing at the highest levels in India. It's a fantastic risk, but one that would benefit India."

Less than ideal preparation

India didn't send a football team to the Asian Games for the first time in 24 years, a move that the AIFF had criticised at the time. In the weeks that followed, they took a 22-member squad to Australia at the end of July, hoping to find some pre-season friendlies against club teams.

India managed three games, but their only wins came against a semi-professional outfit based in New South Wales (NSW), and a team that plays in the second tier of the NSW league. India's only A-League opponents, Sydney FC, handed them a 3-0 defeat.

Nonetheless, the final 20-member SAFF squad is expected to feature recent India call-ups like Vishal Kaith, Subhasish Bose and Anirudh Thapa. 

Hosts Bangladesh themselves are a young team, and recently had their best Asian Games finish, holding Thailand and beating 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar 1-0 to qualify for the round of 16, where they lost to North Korea. Pakistan registered a win against Nepal too, and might have made the round of 16 but for goal difference. 

A question of belief

Menezes firmly believes that the exposure younger players gain from tours and tournaments stands them in good stead.

"When we used to play, we used to do well in internationals at home, South Asian Games and all such tournaments, but whenever we went out to Merdeka [Cup], we would lose big. That is the confidence that a team needs to go out and compete," he says. "You may lose 2-1 or 3-2, but the confidence is that you can build from the back, with the topmost nations."

Menezes cites the COTIF performance by the U-20 team, where they lost to African nation Mauritania and Spanish club Murcia, but held Venezuela and beat Argentina, as a big step in the recognition that young Indian players are getting from the wider football world.

"Fear is a big factor in any game -- technique, strategy, skills and fitness can always be worked upon, but conquering fear can help cross the line between being competitive and winning," he says, adding that constructive criticism is also a must every time that any Indian team fails.

"Balance is necessary, but you sometimes need criticism to know where you might be going wrong. Whether India win or lose, fans will come, but they will probably come out more in numbers when India win."

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