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One of the first questions that the Germany u-17 football team’s liaison officer asked after the team landed at around 4 am in Panjim was if there was a memorial in Goa where the colts could pay homage on Gandhi Jayanti. The team management had meticulously gone over every detail of their Indian itinerary, and when they knew their first training session would coincide with the Mahatma’s birth anniversary, they were keen on finding a suitable memorial to visit.
There’s more to being an international football player than twinkling toes, wages in millions, and a flashy lifestyle. And there’s more to Germans than the Oktoberfest. “These players are too young for the Oktoberfest!” laughed German media manager Ronny Zimmerman when asked if they’d miss the revelries and guzzling back home. “Plus, it’s more exciting as an event for tourists than Germans,” he candidly added.
If you thought this U-17 World Cup is just one step away from stardom for players from the land of the senior World Champions, you would be sorely mistaken.
“Two teachers are travelling with the team,” Zimmermann says.
“Coaches, you mean?”
A language and a maths-physics teacher are accompanying the teenagers to Goa, and save for match days, every other day spent in India will see two hours devoted to academics. “It is compulsory to be in school in Germany till 19. You have to study,” Zimmermann informs. “It’s also two players to a room,” he stresses, insisting that tours like these are crucial to build team spirit, and not about spoiling these precocious talents. “We’ve always stressed on them growing together as a group. We believe a team is stronger than individual genius. You can say it’s a group of 21 friends travelling for the World Cup,” Zimmermann said.
The team’s interest in the host nation doesn’t end with their planned visit to a Gandhi statue. Before coming to India, the group had a three-day camp, where Indian ambassador Mukta Tomar addressed the group and answered their questions about the furthest journey they have undertaken in their nascent careers. “We talked about the weather and Goa as a state, and the boys asked questions. The one about finding snakes made everyone laugh, but it’s a fascinating place. It’s green, and yes, we were surprised to see cows and buffaloes on the streets. But also, we don’t have such tropical beaches back home. We don’t see so many palm trees,” he added.
The team landed just before dawn after a 15-hour journey – Frankfurt-Doha-Goa – and the bus ride to their beach fronted hotel in Casaulim. “We did a few beach runs today just to get a measure of the weather and the key will be to stay hydrated. Our medical staff actually ran with water bottles with the players. And we also focused on stretching, so we don’t cramp. Tomorrow, we will have our first training on the practice pitch where we will try some combinations,” Zimmermann informed.
Germans are known to be professional, and their manager and coach had travelled on recce stints to the venues where they are likely to play – Goa, Kochi, “and hopefully Kolkata,” he adds. Legendary hockey coach Markus Weise, who has now entered football administration, also gave inputs on winning in India. “In Germany, we believe, there’s always something to learn from other sports.”
Exploring the host nation
A chef is accompanying the side, though the squad took up the first recco they were given about Indian food. “Daal. We’ve heard so much about it,” Zimmermann said even as liaison officer Aditya Madan informed that the team had ordered it for lunch.
Also on the cards are a couple of Yoga sessions. “We wanted to understand it, and maybe try it. That’ll be on October 3. We also have a visit planned to a village where we’ll have some kickabouts with children and we’ve brought jerseys for them,” he said, not quite sure which German clubs are popular here.
The one to watch out for
The German u-17s have a few players from Bavaria, Munich and Berlin and a Frankfurter – just like Zimmermann, who played as a youngster. Their biggest name though is a Hamburger. Jann-Fiete Arp, a prodigy who plays as a classical forward, earned 5 minutes of playing time – his first-ever with a senior club team on Friday, and took the next flight out to India and will arrive a day later. “He played in our highest division in Bundesliga. And he’s expected to join us,” Zimmermann informed. With 7 goals in 5 European championship matches (including the winner against Netherlands and hat-tricks against Ireland and Bosnia Herzegovina), much is expected of him. “We think he will be one of the best strikers of this edition,” the media manager says.
The team’s homework, though, went beyond what could be the best formations to field as they seek to emulate their seniors and u-21s. “We read up a lot on dengue, malaria and mosquitoes. This is the first time we’re travelling so far out and it’s good to be careful. It’s been in the news,” Zimmermann would say. There’s a bottle of repellent in every player’s bag, as a result.
It’s a week to go before they play their first game, against Costa Rica. “Everyone back home understands this is a process, but it’s soccer. Everyone wants these boys to win, and the boys want to prove themselves and score goals too. African countries are physically stronger in this age group, while we are good technically and tactically. But this World Cup is important to understand different styles of play. We of course want to be in Kolkata, but the first target is to top our groups, so we play our knockouts also in Goa. The boys have really liked the place,” he ended.