Dubai: Bibiano Fernandes, India’s Under-16 football coach, is confident his young squad is capable enough of shouldering the future of Indian football in the long run.
Fernandes, who visited the Pioneer Sports Academy run by former Indian captain Franky Barreto earlier on Saturday, said he was impressed by the commitment and desire of younger age-level national team players.
“We are expecting something much better from this group of players when compared to the last group. But, I only hope the competition [AFC U16 Championship] is held in the first place,” Fernandes told Gulf News on Saturday. The Indian U16 team is currently in Dubai on a four-match friendly tour that is scheduled to conclude with back-to-back matches against the UAE U-16 national team at the UAE FA grounds in Al Khawaneej on January 21 & 24.
“As of now, we know that the Fifa U17 World Cup [scheduled to be held in Peru] stands cancelled. It will be really good for this group of boys to at least have this Asian competition, failing which they could be a disappointed lot as this is the only age-group competition they can have. We might get another chance to coach, but for the boys, this is just that one opportunity to represent the country at such a level. I have high expectations from these players,” he added.
The Indian U16 squad came up with standout performances, scoring 11 goals in three matches to top Group B during the qualifying competition held in Uzbekistan, in September 2019. India secured identical 5-0 wins against Bahrain and Turkmenistan and were held 1-1 by the hosts as they topped Group B to book their spot for the AFC U16 Championship - which has now been postponed to be tentatively played in Bahrain in April.
“The AIFF [All India Football Federation] and SAI [Sports Authority of India] have done a very good progression chart for youngsters where they get enough opportunities to advance from the U16s to the U18s and then onto the Indian Arrows,” Fernandes said.
“But we are hoping that these boys will continue this progression even after they sign into ISL [Indian Super League] clubs. They need to be playing regularly. At the end of the day it is all about playing competitive matches,” he added.
“I think the boys have already shown what they are capable of during the qualifiers. Scoring 11 goals in three matches is no mean feat in international football. But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and we started from scratch from our camp in Goa [since December 2020]. But since most of the boys have been playing alongside each other for quite some time now, it was more of them re-familiarising with their teammates on the pitch. I think these upcoming friendlies will help us gauge where we stand at the moment,” Fernandes observed.
“It’s always important to play as many preparatory matches as possible. We played so many friendlies in Italy, Malaysia and Turkey in 2019, before the SAFF U15 Championship and the AFC U16 qualifiers, and you saw the results. The team was playing as a cohesive unit, and played such an attractive, attacking brand of football. That does not happen in one day. They need to be put into match situations where they would know what moves their teammates would make, in order to work smoothly as a unit. That is why these friendlies are so crucial,” he insisted.
The biennial international youth football championship was originally scheduled to be held in Bahrain from September 16 to October 3, 2020. It was later re-scheduled from November 25 to December 12 but the current pandemic situation further forced organisers from organising the competition with the AFC yet to arrive at fresh dates for the 16-team tournament.