PROFILE | BY SWAPNANEEL PARASAR Follow @Swapyo on Twitter
The time is now! The largest country in the subcontinent is about to throw open its arms to the footballing fraternity at large come 6 October as India host the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
24 countries from six confederations will be competing for one of the biggest honours in youth football, with matches being hosted in six cities across the country.
In this segment, we take a look at the hosts, the Indian national U-17 football team and guide you through their journey to the world cup, highlighting their strengths, tactics and key players.
Confederation: AFC (Asia)
Nicknames: Indian Colts, Blue Cubs
Known for: Long balls, quick wing-play
Coach: Luís Norton de Matos
PAST RECORDS AND LAURELS
It will be the first time ever that a team representing India will participate in the finals of a FIFA-organised world tournament, let alone the Under-17 World Cup.
However, the Colts have been seven-time entrants into the AFC U-16 Championship, which is held the year previous to the U-17 world event. Ousted from the group stage each time bar once, it was the 2002 edition in the United Arab Emirates that India progressed to the quarter-finals only to be humbled by eventual champions, Republic of Korea.
Even in the 2016 AFC U-16 meet in Goa, where they qualified on merit apart from being hosts, India ended at the bottom of their group with just one point to show in return for all their efforts.
The only piece of silverware India U-16 have won is the 2013 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) U-16 Championship in Nepal. The Blues ended as runners-up in both 2011 and 2015 in the South Asian zonal youth competition.
ROAD TO U-17 WORLD CUP
The odds would have been stacked pretty high against India making it into the finals if not for being hosts themselves. However, with the biggest opportunity to seize, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) made sure that the teenagers got enough match practice, before the first dress rehearsal that was to be the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship in Goa.
Results notwithstanding, India would be a part of the World Cup anyway but the continental event turned out sour for Nicolai Adam's boys at home as they ended up last in their group - with a solitary point on the board.
A 2-3 loss to UAE followed a scintillating 3-3 draw with Saudi Arabia. But, in a must-win game against giants Iran, the Colts were blanked 0-3 by the eventual runners-up. The ouster from the tournament without a single win highlighted the shortcomings of the squad, which in reality was far from being world-beaters.
Even during the U-16 AIFF Youth Cup and BRICS U-17 Cup at home, India could only manage two draws, losing to Tanzania, Russia, China and Brazil on either side of the AFC Championship.
After a disappointing Granatkin Cup in Russia, Nicolai Adam was relieved of his duties just 8 months prior to the main event. Luís Norton de Matos was appointed in February 2017 to lead the nation to its maiden entry into the world stage.
For a full list of results during Nicolai Adam's tenure in 2015 and 2016-17, Click here.
PREPARATIONS AHEAD OF THE MEGA-EVENT
The AIFF has spent more than ₹ 10 Crores since early 2015 in organising 'exposure' trips abroad for the development of the squad. During the Nicolai Adam era, the team travelled to Germany, winning 8 of 14 games before the 2015 U-16 SAFF Championship, where they lost to hosts Bangladesh in the final.
Tours to Spain, Dubai, South Africa, Brazil and yet another seven weeks in Germany summed up the 2016 calendar year. All this revolved around the AFC U-16 Championships, AIFF Youth Cup and the U-17 BRICS tourney - all in Goa.
Preceding the Granatkin Memorial Cup in St. Petersburg, India U-17 were thrashed 8-0 albeit by Russia U-18s. Starting off the campaign with a win over Belarus U-18, India lost all their four subsequent games.
Ending bottom of the pile in the 16-team tournament signalled the end of Nicolai Adam's tenure and Luís Norton de Matos' appointment instilled a renewed hope for the Cubs.
Matos' first match was a humiliating 1-0 defeat at the hands of Minerva Punjab's Academy team before he flew out the squad to his native Portugal for a three-week tour where they only registered a single draw, that too against his former employers SL Benfica's U-17 team.
Post the Iberian stint, India U-17 crisscrossed through Europe playing teams from Paris, Serbia, Macedonia and Spain. Participants in the Lazio Cup, the team remained unbeaten in the three games. Their most famous win came against an assembled Italy U-17 XI, comprising of youth players from clubs in Lega Pro and Lega Pro 2.
The team touched down in New Delhi on 1st July after a gruelling European campaign, remaining unbeaten in their last nine games before the final game defeat to Alcorcon U-17.
Post a two-week break, the squad will assemble again as they prepare to fly out to the USA and Mexico wherein they shall compete against the likes of Chile and Colombia. After that, they will only return to the sub-continent around a month ahead of the World Cup, only after playing a couple of friendlies with New Zealand and New Caledonia.
For a full list of results under Luís Norton de Matos' tenure in 2017, Click here.
TEAM COACH AND HIS IDEOLOGY
The 63-year-old was appointed in February 2017 after Nicolai Adam was given the boot following a string of disappointing results. Matos is a former SL Benfica 'B' coach who was instrumental in the development of emerging stars such as Renato Sanches, Goncalo Guedes and latest Manchester United signing Victor Lindelof during his time at Seixal, Portugal.
As a player, Matos played as a forward graduating from the Benfica academy itself. Spending all his career in the Portuguese top-flight, he also won five caps for the national team, all in 1982.
In his coaching career, only once had he taken charge of a top-flight club during 2005/06 with Vitoria de Setubal. For a short period of time, he served as the Director of Football at Sporting Clube de Portugal.
2008 saw him taking the reins of Guinea-Bissau's national team. He returned to Benfica in 2012/13, guiding them to a seventh-place finish in his first season itself.
Matos is a typical Portuguese style manager who has an eye for pacy wingers and tall and well-built strikers, and to combat that, equally aerially adept defenders. Matos has done well with the resources available to him but with the help of Abhishek Yadav, India's COO for the U-17 FIFA World Cup; he is still striving to scout players of Indian origin abroad.
Aniket Jadhav broke into the footballing scene as a 14-year-old and went to represent India in the FC Bayern Munich Youth Cup in 2014. Being a part of the AIFF setup ever since, the striker has won caps for the nation at all levels and has established himself as Matos' trusted man up front leading the Indian attack, hoping to be the next Indian goal machine.
Skipper Suresh Singh Wangjam has been a calming influence, anchoring his team from the midfield. Leadership comes easily to the Manipuri-born, who was adjudged the best player of the 2014 Nike Manchester United Premier Cup's India leg.
Anwar Ali joined the squad in April 2017 after he caught Matos' eye when his Minerva Academy beat the national team 1-0 in March. An assured presence at the back, Anwar was first called up during Adam's tenure but failed to make the cut initially.