Rather innocently, Rahul KP shared a ‘private’ moment with 100-odd media persons and a dozen cameras. “(Growing up) there wasn’t much support from mom and dad. They were busy with their own jobs because they want to feed us, they have a family. My family background was weak,” the India under-17 team’s striker began.
“So my father’s brother bought me boots and balls, taught me how to kick. I trained alone and it was a bit difficult since mom, dad weren’t supporting. So I developed a fighting mentality from there. It’s a private thing, so…” His voice trailed off and he smiled, slightly embarrassed after realising that the ‘private thing’ wouldn’t quite remain that in a room full of journalists. Barring that one candid moment, Rahul barely showed any nerves in his first brush with scrutiny. If confidence is what the chief coach has demanded from his players, then there is no dearth of it.
Even before the draw took place earlier this month, India’s preparations for the tournament were being closely monitored. In Thursday’s interaction, you could sense the equal measure of optimism and scepticism that the team is facing ahead of the tournament, that begins on October 6.
“Do you think India can even draw one match?” Luis Norton de Matos, the team’s Portuguese coach, has been asked several times whether India have the quality to put up a fight, let alone win a match. The hosts have been handed a tough draw.
The USA are the tournament’s veterans, having played in all but one edition since 1985. Ghana have twice won the title and Colombia are the strongest South American team along with Brazil. India, in contrast, are unknown not just outside but also to most at home. Nicolai Adam, the German who coached the team for two years, urged the players to play freely. He preferred flair and did not mind even if the attacking mindset resulted in defeats, which was often the case.
In stark contradiction, off the field, Adam, was a disciplinarian who — according to the players — verbally and physically abused them. He quit amidst the controversy, which put De Matos in the hot seat. The 63-year-old was earlier the coach of Portuguese club Benfica’s B team. There he was credited with nurturing, among other players, Swedish defender Victor Lindelof, who was recently signed by Manchester United for £31 million. Expectations in India, De Matos understands, are sky high.
But he took charge of a shaken changing room and his first priority was to restore peace. “When there is a change, there is anxiety among players. When I came, I wanted to be a leader in the sense that I can guide players and not be a chief. A chief gives orders. The first thing I tried to do was to keep the confidence of the players,” he says. He made half a dozen changes to the squad and the playing style was radically modified as well.
The teens, who were told to play freely by the previous coach, now had to learn to ‘play between the lines’, have an organised defence to ensure silly goals are not conceded and engage in counter-attacks. “We have spent hours and hour and hours on passing and reception. Playing structured does not mean we are defensive. But we need to defend, too, and be good in counter-attacks,” De Matos said.
The team has travelled the world in search of competitive games and train at the best facilities. The wins have remained elusive but there have been a few eye-catching performances. One of their most dominating performances came against Iran earlier this year in a tournament in Russia. The match highlights make for an entertaining watch. There were all things that you generally associate with Indian football – the feints and dummies, slick one-touch passing and intelligent off-the-ball running. They couldn’t score, though, and conceded a soft goal to lose 1-0.
There were a couple of goalless draws against Serbia and Macedonia, as well. More recently, they played against Benfica’s youth team. After going down by two goals, the colts showed grit to come back in the last 15 minutes and draw 2-2.
“The Benfica players were surprised to watch us play like that and after the match we were applauded by them,” Rahul said. “Coming back from two goals down in the last 15 minutes and making it 2-2 was a wonderful moment,” midfielder Shubham Sarangi added. “It felt like we could do anything. But we showed them we can play, as well.”