Less than 10 days remain for youth football’s premier event, the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, to kick-off for the first time in a country where the game has admittedly not reached the heights it craves amongst a population of over a billion plus.
Very visibly though, the tide has slowly started to change in the last few years as the world’s most popular game begins to find a foothold in a country still obsessed with cricket. When India won the bid to host its ever FIFA tournament and in the process secured a direct entry, the hunt for the country’s brightest young talents started in earnest.
The process started back in February 2013 when then AIFF Technical Director Robert Barn picked up a few players for the India U14 squad. German coach Nicolai Adam, who took charge of the India U17 World Cup team in April 2015, cherry-picked several players from this squad. Adam, in the company of the AIFF Director of Scouting Abhishek Yadav, conducted various training camps around the country in the pursuit of finding India’s best young footballers.
One such training camp was organized at Cooperage, Mumbai, where the list of probables contained one particular name – that of Hendry Antonay. On the sidelines of one training session, Yadav was asked to comment about Hendry.
“We watched him at an I-League Under-15 match and he was drafted into the camp recently. Coach Adam feels Henry has some catching up to do. Nothing can stop him from getting into the squad provided the coach is convinced. After all, we are working together to build a team for India,” Yadav was quoted saying at that time.
It has been almost two years since that day and that particular probable has become a crucial part of the defence. Adam has long since parted ways with Indian football and Portuguese coach Luis Maria Norton de Matos has taken his place.
Antonay still recognizes Adam’s role in his selection for the national team. “I played for Pune FC in the I-League U-15 division. Once the league got over, the very next day I got a call from the coach informing me about the trials taking place in Mumbai for the Under-17 team. I went to Mumbai from Pune for the trials. Nicolai sir and Abhishek sir were there that day and I was selected.”
A shy and polite teenager, you can instantly figure Antonay’s demeanour by the way he addresses every senior as ‘sir’. After Norton took charge, the Karnataka native took an instant liking to the Portuguese’s coaching philosophy.
“There were a lot of changes implemented by Norton sir. Earlier we focused mostly on defending, but Norton sir encouraged us to be more comfortable with the ball and develop our attacking instincts,” he says. "Norton sir has rotated the players very well so that everyone has got a decent opportunity to showcase themselves."
Being a full-back, the added focus on attacking instincts and technical development has certainly bolstered Antonay’s preparation for the mega event where he will find himself being watched by thousands of people.
Full-backs are an in-demand commodity in modern football with teams across Europe and the rest of the world demanding much more than just defending in a role which has developed into a crucial aspect of attacking play.
Antonay though does not see that aspect to be demanding in any sort. “It all depends on the timing of when you need to bomb forward and when you need to stay back. It depends on the winger too ahead of me. If he moves inside then I need to overlap to provide support. If he has moved further forward then I need to stay back,” he says nonchalantly.
You can tell that despite still being a teenager, Antonay is very mature, strong and level-headed.
The thought of facing opponents who are way more physically developed than India’s youngsters doesn’t seem to faze him at all.
“In football, height and physique is not everything. It is more about the mental aspect. We are mentally prepared for the World Cup,” he says.
Antonay also credits the mental preparation for one of the results of the India U17 team recently - the 1-1 draw against Chile in the four-nation tournament in Mexico. "We were wee confident going into the Chile match. Being the last match, our coach wanted us to finish on a high with a victory at any cost. We were mentally prepared and confident on the ball," he said.
The 17-year-old started his football development with Ozone FC FC by spending two years at the club. It was here that he got his first taste of attending a national camp for the Under-14 squad. Thereafter, he joined Bengaluru FC for a season. The full-back then moved to Pune FC where he played U-15 I-League.
Leaving Bengaluru was a hard decision but the exceptional training facilities swayed the minds of Antonay and his parents.
Perhaps the youngster’s move to Pune did come at the right time for him. For it was there that a call-up to the Indian Under-17 team came from Adam and Yadav.
"I did go to Pune FC since they have exceptional facilities and a lot of international players. My family and myself were looking for opportunities and so Pune FC made sense. When I was there I got the chance to attend an India camp," he revealed.
Just recently named in the final 21-man squad for the tournament, Antonay’s mind is already focused on October 6 when India kick-start their campaign against the USA.
There he will be, bombing down the wings in relentless style, and we better get used to it. The sky is the limit for Antonay and he could be a name we keep hearing about for the next decade or so.
Watch Hendry Antonay and the India U17 team in action on Sony Ten 2 and Sony Ten 3 - the official broadcaster of the FIFA U17 World Cup!