Dubai: India football coach Bibiano Fernandes will not stop at anything short of a qualifying spot in the 2021 Fifa Under-17 World Cup to be held in Peru in a little over one year’s time.
To date, India has only participated at the U-17 World Cup as hosts in the 2017 edition of the competition and ave never qualified in their own right. This was also the only India have participated in the finals of a Fifa-organised world competition.
Now with a possible ticket to a Usecond World Cup on the horizon with the 2020 AFC U16 Championship in Bahrain, Fernandes is confident that a growing experience at all levels will ensure the country of one of four spots when Peru hosts the global tournament in October 2021.
“Along the way, and over a period of time, we have learnt so many things. To start with, we have understood what kind of players and what type of play is needed to be successful at that level. It’s been a growth experience for all of us in order to match the level of top Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Tajikistan and Australia who have been good at the grass roots level,” Fernandes told Gulf News in an interview.
“Over a period of time, we have come to realise the difference in the two squads [2018 and 2020] is the experience of all those involved. There’s a lot of difference between the two squads — the one from last time and the current group of players. It is not the boys and it is not the talent, but it is the experience that has helped us.”
India have been one of the standout teams heading into 2020 AFC U16 Championship in Bahrain following their dominating 5-0 wins against Turkmenistan and Bahrain and a 1-1 draw against hosts Uzbekistan to win qualifying Group B in the rounds held in September last year.
With Japan as the defending champions, this edition will be the last to be played as an U16 competition as the AFC has proposed switching the tournament from U16 to U17 starting from 2023.
The 16-team competition — originally scheduled to be held from September 16-October 3 — has now be re-scheduled for November 25-December 12 with the top four teams qualifying as Asian representatives for the 2021 U17 World Cup in Peru.
India have placed with South Korea, Australia and Uzbekistan in Group C for the tournament in Bahrain.
Born on December 2, in the North Goa commercial capital of Mapusa, Fernandes has been at the helm of the junior Blue Colts. Under Fernandes, India won the SAFF U15 Championship in 2017 and 2019, while the U16s reached the quarter-finals of the 2018 AFC Championship eventually losing by a solitary goal to the mighty South Koreans.
The Indian U16 team have qualified for the AFC U16 Championship three times in a row from 2016, while the nation’s U-19 and U-20 squads have also achieved some brilliant results in the recent past.
But for the moment, it’s all about the next task at hand coming up in exactly four months from now in Bahrain. “We are following countries from our group and potential opponents in the knockout stages as well. If we do start our preparations with a training camp in August, then we will be restricted to just three and a half months before the competition in Bahrain,” Fernandes, 43, said.
“But, we will not be pushing the players too hard as I feel it is better to have relatively less fit players than to lose key players to injuries especially at this stage. We will pay extra attention to workload, rest and recovery and we will try our best to get the boys fit in the best possible way. At the same time, we will ensure they are clear with the idea on what and how we are going to play during the competition. Our main aim is to have to all players fit and playing.”
The Goan coach hailed an improved scouting system for being a major part behind the success of grass roots development of the Indian junior sides. India won the SAFF U18 Championship played in Kathmandu, Nepal with a 2-1 win over Bangladesh in the final, in September last year.
“The last time [in 2018], we lost to Korea by a goal. So, we need to first try and match that level. We have understood what we need to do while scouting for talent and also it has helped all our coaching staff to think differently and start training the boys in a different manner,” he said.
“Our goal is to definitely qualify for the World Cup [in Peru]. At the last edition [of the AFC U-16 competition] in Malaysia, we missed out narrowly. The first step would be to advance from the group stages. None of the three teams — Australia, South Korea and Uzbekistan — will be easy. We will keep our hopes high, and the first priority will be to qualify as group winners.”
With India experiencing a recent spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, all sporting activities have been kept in abeyance with U16 players expected to attend their camp that has now been put off until August at least.
“Everyone has been affected by the pandemic and everyone will have difficulty to start their training. Some nations have already started. The AIFF [All India Football Federation] is trying its best to get permission to start the camp [from the ministry] as soon as possible, but some places are showing a spike in cases and that’s not helping our players to travel for the camp in Goa,” Fernandes said.
“The plan is to start the camp in Goa as soon as we get the necessary permissions. We will then keep the boys on a 14-day quarantine while maintaining all SOPs in mind and taking good care of our players. Part of the plan is also to travel for international matches and we’ve already been getting invitations from other countries. But for the moment, we’ve got to wait and watch and see how things recover from the pandemic,” he added.
Drawn in Group C for the Bahrain competition, India will open their campaign against Australia on November 26 followed by Korea Republic on November 29 and the last fixture against Uzbekistan on December 2.