As India get ready to play host to the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in less than fortnight’s time, 21 of the country’s finest youth talents led by Portuguese coach Luis Norton de Matos will carry the torch for the nation as they battle it out with 23 other teams from six confederations.
The make-up of Norton’s 21-man squad contains one Aniket Jadhav, the one of the two faces (the other being Namit Deshpande) from Maharashtra in the team. The Kolhapur-born youngster is undisputedly one of the stars in the team with an unquenchable thirst for goals.
The star striker, who can also play on the either wings, was among the 10 Indians selected by former Germany and Bayern Munich great Paul Brietner to represent the nation at the prestigious FC Bayern Munich Youth Cup in 2014.
Jadhav retains fond memories of that particular trip and remains grateful to Brietner for providing him the opportunity.
“I played at a good level and was happy to go to Munich. I played against some top players at the tournament in Munich. It was really good to be recognized by a legend like Paul Brietner back then,” he says.
The Maharashtra boy started his football journey under Jaideep Angiwal of Krida Prabodhini school in Pune. Thereafter he joined Pune FC where he joined the Under-15 side before progressing to the Under-17s.
In 2015, Nicolai Adam was handed the task of building India’s team for the mega event. All India Football Federation's (AIFF) Director of Scouting Abhishek Yadav & Adam began their nationwide search for starlets who would ultimately represent India at the World Cup.
It was at one particular trial in Mumbai that Jadhav was noticed by the pair. Since then, the 17-year-old had been a constant in the Indian team even though Adam has since been replaced by Portuguese coach Luis Norton de Matos.
Jadhav has only good things to say about the 63-year-old’s tenure ever since he took the reins of the India U17 team.
“The team has undergone several changes since the change of coach. We are progressing and I’m happy with the work done. We are playing more as a team and do more work on the ball now. Certainly, our confidence levels have gone up,” he says.
The left-footed striker hasn’t always played upfront and in fact started as a left-back while playing for his school. It was his coach at the school, Jaideep Angiwal, who asked Aniket to take part in the trials for the India U17 team.
However, Jadhav auditioned himself as a left-winger during the trials which led to his selection to the Indian team. This obviously was a calculated decision by the young lad and he explains why he did it.
“When I gave the trial in Mumbai, I played as a left winger. The reason being that left-footed players in attack are a rarity and I knew that Indian team needed some players who have a good left foot.
“Thankfully, I caught the attention of Nicolai Sir and Abhishek Sir and got selected as a left winger,” the Kolhapur boy says about his selection.
His ability to play all across the front-line makes Jadhav a dangerous opponent for any defence and he will be one of Norton’s main attacking outlets come the World Cup.
In what will be the biggest football tournament ever held in India, the pressure and expectations on the 21 boys when they rub shoulders against the world’s best will be huge undoubtedly.
Such massive pressure and hype can sometimes be crippling for youngsters but not for the star-striker.
“We know we will give our best. This is the first time India will participate in the World Cup and it’s time to show that India also has some talent. We have to put on a show,” he says calmly.
The forward, who has been in fine goal-scoring form for India in the run-up to the global showdown, has already been making waves back in his home state. The number 11’s life-size posters were displayed in various stands during the famous Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations back in his home-town just a few weeks back.
Such adulation at such an early age has taken Jadhav by surprise. “I felt really good to see my posters at the Ganpati pandals. I was surprised and to be frank and was taken aback. When I was five years old or so, I remember visiting a Ganpati pandal where Lord Ganesha was dressed in a Brazil yellow jersey.”
“There was also a poster of one of the famous Brazilian players. Now to see my poster at the pandal, it was very good. One of my friends from Kolhapur shared the pictures with me and I am thankful to those who decided on this idea,” he says fondly about the incident.
Despite such fanfare at a young age, Jadhav is not getting carried away and keeps his feet on the ground. He believes that AIFF's scouting project must be taken to more states in the country.
“To be honest, India has a lot of talent. There are many players like me who deserve a chance and who haven’t yet got their opportunity. The more trials we will have, the more talent and newer players will get a chance to come to the top level,” he says.
His point about the potential for more hidden talent in a country of over a billion people might well be right but for now, Jadhav, along with 20 other starlets, will carry the expectations of those who couldn’t make it, come October 6.
Watch Aniket Jadhav and the India U17 team in action on Sony Ten 2 and Sony Ten 3 - the official broadcaster of the FIFA U17 World Cup!