TEHRAN: You look at the boys and try to dig deep. It’s the U-16 Asian Cup and four years down the line some of them, who knows, will be as big as Lionel Messi or even better than Diego Maradona.
Fresh but shy faces, eyes filled with ambition and with an ability to take on the World with the ball at their feet, each one of them avoids eye contact with you. You greet them and the first common line which you hear, stays: “Good Luck.” You try to engage them in a conversation, they just nod and smile; that too with their heads down.
There’s Japan, there’s the two Koreas, there’s Australia, there’s Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, China and others – the cream of Asia. And among them there’s a bunch of talented boys from India; the U-16 Indian National Team – the future of Indian Football.
India who earned a ticket for the final phase in October 2011 in Tashkent, stay clubbed with Uzbekistan, Syria and China in Group D. The top-two from each Group qualify for the Quarterfinals while the four semifinalists get a direct entry into the U-17 World Cup. On the surface that means, India stay 4 matches away from a spot in the World Cup.
“Namaste,” utters former Indian National Coach Rustam Akramov, presently the Director of Uzbekistan’s National Team. India are slated to play Uzbekistan in their first match on September 23 (Sunday).
The elder statesman informs: “We have trained for 73 days abroad for the Championship and have played 24 International matches. This U-16 bunch of ours stays more tactically organised than our U-19 batch.” Both the teams had their first practice session at the Rah Ahan Stadium, the venue for the match.
“International exposures at this age matters. Uzbekistan go into the match with more confidence than us,” Colm Joseph Toal utters. “But we will be competitive.” The boys, by then, finishing their practice session, were tossing the ball in the sky.
The blue sky just couldn’t have been clearer. The last time the Indian U-19 team played in the AFC Qualifiers, temperatures for the fortnight stayed an average minus one degree. The snow, the rain and the chilly winds which seemed to pierce the bone just can’t be identified with September’s Tehran.
Come September, flowers greet you at every corner, there’s a wind which you will love — more like the spring; there’s spring in everyone’s steps as colourful kites fly in the sky. The Alborz Mountain Range, all brown, watches.
The Indian boys always move in a group. Speak to them but it’s hard to make them speak. All they understand is that they stay on the threshold of history and need to perform to their potential. “From the batch of 2008, Lalrindika Ralte, Manandeep Singh and Shilton D’Silva made already played for India,” Toal recollects. The U-16 boys enquire about India’s performance in U-22 Championship every moment. Dika, Milan, Manandeep were all part of that.
“I feel, at this level, you can never be consistent. It’s all about the age. They are not even 16,” Akramov says. “We have had exceptional days and even below average ones. At this age, the heart plays a big role. Everything stays so unpredictable.”
There’s always a bit of restlessness yet calm about Colm Toal. He checks every minute detail and stays the first one to arrive down at the lobby for the practice sessions. Having earlier coached China and Uzbekistan, he knows their footballing structure, the age-group teams more than anyone else.
It’s hard to judge whether the boys love or respect him more. Toal smiles. “We need to be competitive and we will,” he murmurs. The boys can’t hear him this time. With a ball in their hands, traffic obstacles force a halt every second minute. The journey stays long. The Rah Ayan Stadium awaits.
September 23: India vs Uzbekistan (3pm) – IST: 5pm
By Nilanjan Datta