A feeble 1000-odd spectators in a massive 19,000-seater Fatorda Stadium in Goa didn’t say much for the home support. India played United Arab Emirates in their opening game of the U-16 AFC Championship in a rather vacant setting. For the next game though, 4,137 showed up. And then a greater 5,892 came for the match against Iran. Yet, the tale of numbers doesn’t only speak of an audience coming into the stadium to support the home team. India was slowly recognising and warming up to the players that will be the first from the country to compete in a football World Cup of any age group at the U-17 event next year.
Just like the crowd, India’s opponents at the continental championships knew nothing of the team before the event started. UAE’s coach Abdelmajeed Ibrahim Mohamed Alnemer admitted that he didn’t have any knowledge about the Indian team’s style of play. He would find out a day later.
For the most part, head coach Nicolai Adam has set up a shrewd 4-5-1 formation for the team with the highly rated forward Aman Chetri acting as the lone striker. On the wings there was plenty of pace in the form of Aniket Jadhav and dead-ball specialist Sanjeev Stalin – who was the first Indian to score at the ongoing tournament.
Then there is the versatility of the speedy Boris Singh Thangjam, who can play as wing-back and on the attacking flanks as well, as he did in each of India’s three league matches. The 16-year-old also has the tendency of making a few inbound runs, both with and without the ball. It was such runs that enabled him to slot home an Aniket cross against UAE, and set up Chetri’s goal against Saudi Arabia.
Up front though, the Guwahati-born Chetri is supported by Sikkim’s Komal Thatal, who features just behind the striker. Thatal has proven his knack of getting into dangerous positions and making space to provide intelligent passes – as he did in his effort to set up Aniket’s opener in the second game.
The pair’s understanding often found gaps in the UAE and Saudi defence. “They’ve got excellent chemistry. Their one-touch play was fast and accurate,” says former India international Climax Lawrence.
Sturdy in the middle
The five-man midfield unit allows for the hard-running Manipuri pair of Amarjit Singh Kiyam and the industrious captain Suresh Singh Wangjam to function. The duo worked well in the first half of the first two games to control the midfield, with Suresh initiating attacks with his passing range while Amarjit sat just in front of the defence to provide interceptions and tackles.
In defence, the taller frames of Mohammed Sarif Khan and Jitendra Singh serve as centre-backs with Boris and Stalin alternating the left-back position while Mohamad Rakip stood at the other end. Then there is the tall figure of Dheeraj Singh Moiranghtem in goal – who saved two penalties in the group stages. “He’s tall and has some good reflexes,” asserts senior India first choice goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. “The way he steps up for corners and free-kicks is also a positive, along with his distribution sense,” he adds.
Overall, there has been general praise for the chemistry instilled within the squad, one that even UAE coach Alnemer admitted to. Further, he added that India’s automatic qualification to the World Cup as hosts lets them use the AFC Championship as a platform to understand the team dynamics. “They played together throughout the year. It’s good preparation as they are not under pressure to qualify,” he says.
Concurrently, Adam too had designed his training program in such a way that the national team would actually resemble a club structure. “In India, there is no youth league, so it was important to have the national team train together and stay together as if it were a club,” he asserts. The team travelled to Spain, Germany and Norway, playing as many as 19 games.
To find his current crop of players, Adam toured 22 states in the country looking for players. There was even a scouting program in Gulf to test teenagers with Indian passports and see if they were good enough to make the team. They short-listed three children from Dubai but they weren’t added to the squad. Once the current crop was set, they spent nine months together before the AFC Championship came up. “My job is to prepare the team for the World Cup. Beautifully, the AFC Championship comes along and it’s being held at one of the World Cup venues. It’s an ultimate test a year ahead of the big event,” Adam says.
Despite the added support from the stands, India didn’t manage to make it past the group stage, losing 3-2 to UAE in the first game, drawing 3-3 against Saudi Arabia in the second before falling 3-0 to powerhouse Iran in the last game. Nonetheless, over the three games there was an energetic look to the team, yet one that still requires work and experience.
In their youthful exuberance, there is a tendency of holding onto the ball for too long or even over dribble at times. “Their decision making needs a little more work, especially in the attacking third. Sometimes they had to hold the ball when they made a pass, or pass instead of dribbling,” explains Santosh Kashyap, a seasoned I-League coach. “At the same time, they tend to rush things. It’s not quick, it’s hurried. So just need to be a little more composed.”
India international Gouramangi Singh, meanwhile, asserts there is a need to learn to hold onto a lead. Against both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, India once held the lead before losing out and chasing back for a draw respectively. “It’s good to see the players have an attacking-mindset. That’s positive football. But once you get the lead, you need to slow the game down a bit by holding the ball,” he says. “This team can certainly score goals, but at the same time they need to defend their lead,” he adds.
There’s also a need to calculate the use of energy. The first half of each game has seen the Indian side entertain, yet they exhaust themselves through their fast-flowing style, only to crumble in the second. “You have to know your energy and play smart,” Gouramangi says.
Sandhu, meanwhile, is hoping to see a bit more communication between the goalkeeper and his defenders for better coordination at the back. “You don’t need lengthy conversations because defenders hate it. Just a short, snappy message. That’s all that’s needed,” he says.
The 21 in Goa form the crux of the Indian team, along with four more who weren’t eligible to compete in the event and Reamsochung Chongompipa Aimol, who broke his foot during the last practice game in Germany.
The main motive behind the AFC Championships for Adam was to try to get to know how the team plays in a competitive event. Ideally, the coach wanted his team to qualify for the World Cup on merit. Nonetheless, from what was seen in the team’s first ever appearance in a major tournament, there is an optimism in the way the team has performed so far.
Remember these names
Boris Singh Thangjam, 16
Position: Left back, Right back, Left wing, Right wing
Native: Imphal, Manipur
Boris was inclined to compete in the sprint track events before his father, who runs a grocery store, decided to shift him into football
Aman Chetri, 15
Native: Guwahati, Assam
His father is a former footballer who currently works in the railways. His mother, meanwhile, wanted Aman to join the army
Saurabh Meher, 16
Position: Central midfield
Native: Mumbai, Maharashtra
Tall, two-footed with a powerful shot from range, Saurabh’s comes from a fishing background
Mohammad Nawaz, 16
Native: Imphal, Manipur
The second-choice goalkeeper is rated to be very good with the ball at his feet. His father works as a plumber and also drives his own mini-van for transporting goods
Mohammed Sarif Khan, 16
Position: Centre back
Native: Imphal, Manipur
His father drives a mini-van, transporting cement, bricks and other material within the North East
Mohamad Rakip, 16
Position: Centre back, Right back, left back
Native: Imphal, Manipur
His father owns a shoe shop and made Rakip his first pair of football boots
Reamsochung Chongompipa Aimol, 16
Position: Right back
Native: Palil, Manipur
His father was once in the army, but retired and now owns a farm and is also a pastor at a church