By the time they landed at their base in Delhi earlier this week, India’s under-17 World Cup squad had travelled four continents, 18 countries, racked up more than 200,000 air miles and played more than 100 matches. The government and All India Football Federation (AIFF) have already spent more than Rs 15 crore on their preparation. And this is just a part of the investment.
No wonder IM Vijayan calls them an ‘extremely lucky’ bunch. Baichung Bhutia begrudges their foreign exposure. Sunil Chhetri candidly admits he is jealous they are getting to play a World Cup, never mind an age-group one.
The three greats, spanning as many generations, have held the national team’s fort for years. But there has never been such single-minded focus on the AIFF’s part to prepare a team for an international tournament. And their commitment to the Class of 2000 does not end here.
To keep this group together and ensure they do not drift into oblivion, the players have already signed a two-year contract with the AIFF to play in the I-League, for which they will be paid a monthly salary. If an offer from a foreign club arrives, they will be released. The coach, Luis Norton de Matos, has already been asked to continue after the tournament.
The federation hopes this bunch will mature into a competitive unit by 2019, when they hope to host the under-20 World Cup. “We have committed ourselves to build a fine competitive team,” AIFF president Praful Patel says. “It’s been an ongoing process and no compromises have been made,” he adds.
All this may not necessarily translate into a winning performance. From the time they were awarded the U-17 World Cup, in December 2013, India have been playing catch-up with the rest of the world. In April 2015, when Nicolai Adam was appointed the coach, he explicitly said exposure trips were the only way to get the team to the level where they will be in a position to compete.
The German jotted down a plan, which involved the teenagers crisscrossing the globe in search of decent opponents. But they faced one big hurdle. “Most countries do not have an established under-17 team. They form a group for the qualifiers and continue with them if they make the cut. Else, the team is disbanded,” an AIFF official said.
So the AIFF sets up matches with clubs while occasionally managing a national team. They ended up travelling to Russia, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Portugal, South Africa, Dubai and Mexico, to name a few, in the last two years. To get a sense of how other countries have prepared, Colombian players have spent less than a month together because they are attached to their respective clubs. They started 10-day camps once a month only after they secured qualification in July.
No Indian team before has travelled so much or played these many matches before a tournament. In fact, most players at this age have had to make do by playing inter-school tournaments on dusty fields. “When I was growing up, I could never imagine such exposure. I could never imagine training in one of Europe’s top academies,” Chhetri was quoted as saying. “So I am both happy and jealous.”
His former teammate Abhishek Yadav, who is the chief operating officer of the U-17 team, adds: “When we were of that age, we would be scared of travelling alone from Mumbai to Goa. We realize now, however, that playing the foreign clubs and travelling to all these countries has made them much more confident than we were (at their age).”
Trendy, fearless and confident
The confidence reflects in the manner the players conduct themselves. They exude self-confidence while talking, are up-to-date with the latest fashion trends and have acquired taste for cuisines that some of the well-travelled senior team players haven’t even heard of. Some of the changes have even surprised their families.
When Boris Singh returned home during a break earlier this year, the teenager had a rude surprise for his family members. “He had dyed his hair blonde!” says his father Mohesh. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The flashy hair colour sets him apart from his teammates – almost all of whom had donned some of the trendier styles. But at home, he wasn’t spared. “His mother hates it, his grandmother hates it. They all scolded him, but Boris is very happy with it,” Mohesh says, laughing.
Aman Chetri’s mother Seema had bigger concerns. Before the team left for Germany in 2015, she gave her son a long check list. Yet, Aman’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing. These weren’t the usual goodbye calls. Rather, Seema wanted to talk to the team’s physio. “Yeh sabzi nahi khata, thoda dhyan rakhna,” Seema recollects telling him. Minutes earlier, she had spoken to him to ensure they were put up at a safe location. And before that, to check if her son had carried enough warm clothes.
Like most kids in their early teens, Aman, then 14, was agitated. But his mother’s anxiety was natural. “He was travelling abroad for the first time, that too for one month. It was natural to be tense,” she says. “Now he is more aware than us about the food habits and weather in other countries.”
Aman did not make the final cut. An injury forced him out of the squad during the home stretch but the exposure trips, players say, have given them the confidence to play fearlessly. “Earlier, we would be afraid to face strong opponents. But now, we don’t mind seeing eye-to-eye with them. The exposure tours have taught us to play good and aggressive football,” midfielder Suresh Singh, who led the team at the under-16 Asian Championship last year, recently said.
The aggressive football under Adam got them mixed results. Under his successor, de Matos, the team is likely to adopt a more pragmatic approach, as was seen at the four-nation tournament in Mexico last month. It was the team’s 17th foreign trip, the last one – at least until they reassemble after the World Cup to play in the I-League.
To prepare for the World Cup, this bunch of millennials has travelled the world. And the players realize the uniqueness of it. “Even Sunil Chhetri has commented that he is ‘jealous of us’,” Suresh says. “We are aware and understand that we are lucky but at the same time aware of what we need to do. We are motivated and well prepared.”
Winger turned striker, six foot goalkeeper, meet some members of the Indian team:
Amarjit Singh Kiyam (Midfielder — Captain): Against USA on October 6, Amarjit will become the first ever captain of an Indian World Cup squad. He makes crucial interceptions and though often deep-lying, he does have a creative streak and the ability to feed inch-perfect passes to his forwardline.
Dheeraj Singh Moiranthem (Goalkeeper): Dheeraj was declared the No.1 custodian at the AFC U-16 Championships in Goa last year. He backs his six-foot frame with a strong upper body, which allows him to out-muscle jostling strikers. His reflexes and anticipation too have been praised.
Boris Singh (Defender): Standing at just five-foot-three, the full-back is the shortest in the team, but is known for his tenacity and tireless running. In his pre-teens, he was inclined to athletics before his father made him shift his focus to football. He can sprint down the wings and open up the play.
Komal Thatal (Midfielder): Despite a decent showing at the AFC U-16 Championships in Goa, Komal drew attention when he scored against a Brazil team that included the prolific Vinicius Junior at the BRICS Cup last year. Komal has impeccable ball control and ability to sneak past defenders.
Aniket Jadhav (Striker ): He was scouted as a winger, but his goal-poaching abilities has resulted in him being one of the two strikers. Pacy and with terrific control, he was one of the standout players at the AFC U-16 Championships last year – where he scored the opening goal against Saudi Arabia.