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Four days back, India U-17 goalkeeper Dhiraj Singh had a chat with fellow Manipuri Renedy Singh, former India midfielder and currently an Indian Super League coach. “Don’t worry even if you lose the three games, forget the hype, this World Cup is not about win or loss,” Dhiraj was told. “Play like each game is your last game, fight it out for 90 minutes, and most importantly stick to your coach’s tactical plan. Ensure the team keeps its shape in attack and defence.”
As the World Cup is around the bend, the hype machine is slowly worming its way into the minds of fans, and an effort is made to not let pressure and distraction get to the players. Already, the team management has started to shield the players by taking away their phones. It causes occasional hiccups in families getting through to their sons, but the aim is to keep them focused. The young Indian team is good, experts reckon, but they will run into top international teams and it won’t be a surprise if they don’t win.
On Tuesday, Renedy shared an incident from his past that still rankles him, and in many ways, captures the sorry tale of Indian football over the years. It also explains what he meant by keeping shape. In the latter 1990s, Renedy was part of the U-19 team that played in Busan in Korea. India held China 1-1, drew with Syria, and lost to Japan, a team that had Shunsuke Nakamura, 0-2.
“We thought we were there with the best.” Seven years on, he would learn the bitter truth that they were just drifting along rather aimlessly. “So, we play Japan seven years later. Almost same team in both sides. I am here, Nakamura is there…, all same, and we got thrashed 7-0.” He shakes his head in disbelief even now, all these years later, as if he has just returned from the stadium after the humiliating loss.
In those seven years, even as Japan grew tactically stronger, Indian players had slipped. “Until Bob Houghton took over as coach, we didn’t know what real football was! We were just playing from heart, and just running. It was all about running. There was no real tactical knowledge. Most important for a team is to keep shape –when the ball is on the right side, what should I do on the left flank? We can’t be just running in the open. We used to do that. Wham! they come through and score a goal. It’s basics but we didn’t learn till Houghton came.”
Over the last two years, the U-17 probables were travelling around the world, AIFF has spent around Rs 15 to 18 crore on them, and they have been working with coach Luis Norton de Matos. They have done well against Asian teams, and have had pitched battles with top-class teams abroad.
Renedy is confident that this current lot would hold their own in terms of physicality and basics. “Other top teams of the world might be superior tactically because they start so young – from the age of 8 in most cases with regular match-time against competitive sides – but Indians would do a few things well. I would be surprised if they are running aimlessly in the open, they would organise themselves well, they would run hard with a plan.”
In his mind, it’s not even this World Cup that is all important in determining India’s future – but what happens in the next four years. “17 to 21 is the most crucial years. It’s the make or break years. You might do well in the World Cup but a player can vanish in a year. It would come down to how well AIFF manage it.”
The hype and attention, the rising ambition and dreams as one enters the adult world, and the financial demands on these players would all pile up, Renedy says. Most of the teenagers in the team are from poor families. Some, from Manipur, would become the main breadwinners of their families. And they would be hit with the reality check of the adult world soon. “They have to maintain balance – the moment compliments gets to heads or criticism goes to heart, you would be gone. Such a vulnerable age, this.
“Yes, some of them can go on to play in the ISL but not everyone would, right? What’s going to happen then? AIFF needs to have a plan to even help them monetarily. This is a good team, and will form the core of the Indian men’s team in the near future. AIFF has to keep them together, and continue to counsel, train, provide exposure, and chart out a map for them. The coaching staff should remain for a while. It will come down to what kind of competitive leagues we put them in – will they get to play week in, week out? How AIFF plans out the next four years with the core of this team would determine where Indian football goes.”