The Indian under-22 side had only 16 days with their newly appointed coach, Arthur Papas, to prepare for first ever U22 AFC Championship qualifiers. They had a new coach and had to adapt a whole new system which was almost alien to them as they were habituated with the long ball technique. However, they played surprisingly well and raised a hope for qualification from a very very tough group. India lost to their penultimate match to host Oman and did not make it to the final round which raised the same old suspicion about the Indian colts as in yesteryear’s Indian junior team played very well in age group tournament and then faded away. Are they going to keep their promise this time?
Previously, Indian junior teams have achieved a lot more. Back in 2002 Indian junior team almost qualified for under-20 world cup. The team was one win away from a U20 world cup spot when they lost to South Korea by seven goals to nil in a Quarter Final match. That team had one of the most talented groups of boys like Malsawmtluanga, Subhas Chakraborty, Prasant Jaggi, Satish Kumar, Manas Das, Mehtab Hussain, Rahim Nabi. After that promising start and a respectable performance in AFC youth championship, the expectations were very high, but the promising youngsters did not keep their promise and none of them could take the game to the next level as required. Many other promising youngsters like Dipendu Biswas, Renedy Singh, Kalyan Choubey, Lorendra Singh, Samsi Reza all had a decent start with the junior India team but except Renedy no one could keep up their good show at senior level. There are many more such examples of players who started with immense potential but faded away, neither shining in the bigger stage nor having any shining club career. Jerry Zirsangha, Malswamkima, Sk Sanjib are few of many such players who fall into this category .
Will the story be the same this time too or can we start dreaming about a better future at senior level with the current crop of youngsters?
One has to accept that the scenario is pretty much different this time as Pailan Arrows is here. Earlier after playing for national team in different age groups, most of the boys found it very difficult to make the cut in the senior team at the club level. They lost the momentum and started dishing out average performances in the domestic league. But now most of the boys will be playing for the Arrows under the tutelage of Arthur Papas. The system and combinations will be same.
In the senior team, many stalwarts like Raju Gaikwad, Sunil Chettri, Subrata Paul, Gouramangi Singh have already gained international experience. Above all, newly appointed Dutch coach Wim Koevermans will be there to give a new dimension to this team. Moreover, some high quality foreign players are coming to play in I league, which, hopefully will help our boys gain some confidence and improve their standard while playing against them in I league.
Somehow I feel, after a long time, that Indian football is getting out of inertia. AIFF is taking few right steps towards the development of the game by appointing Rob Baan, Arthur Papas and Wim Koevermans. India had many successes in last twelve years under foreign coaches like LG cup in Vietnam under Stephen Constantine, back to back Nehru Cup and AFC challenge Cup under Bob Houghton but the consistency was not there. Now under Wim Koevermans, these group of young people along with the few experienced one’s can achieve more than what their predecessors have achieved. Another positive factor is this new team doesn’t depend upon any particular individual. For example, rising star Jeje was used mostly as a substitute in U22 qualifiers. I think our ultimate goal should be qualifying in next Asia Cup by wining AFC challenge cup. If we could achieve that then we will be able to play two back to back Asia cup which will be a giant step towards the improvement of the game in this country. We have Nehru cup to be played and that will be a tremendous confidence booster for our boys and their will be good international exposure. I am pretty sure there will be a ‘Koevermans effect’ and some technical & tactical development is surely going to take place. I am eagerly waiting for his announcement of squad for Nehru Cup. Hopefully he will not overlook good performers like Mehtab Hussain, Debabrata Roy and few other I League performers. With a bit of luck or chance factor, the Blue Tigers can achieve some international success and can improve its FIFA rankings. So, I think good times are ahead of us. I know the best is yet to come but this is definitely much better than the what we have seen in recent times, better in terms of quality of the game and in terms of high spirits and motivations.