With just a day to go for India U-16's first match at the AFC U-16 Championship taking place in Malaysia, Bibiano Fernandes is hoping his team will carry their recent form into the tournament.
India's colts have been busy with exposure tours as part of their preparations for the continental competition. They played the India-Egypt Friendship Cup in Egypt, Jockey Cup in Hong Kong, MIC and Sportchain Cup in Spain besides four-nation tournaments in Serbia, China and Jordan, all these in eight months.
The Goa-born head coach sat down for an exclusive interview with Goal ahead of the tournament in Malaysia. Below are the excerpts.
Q - It has been raining for a couple of weeks in Malaysia. How does that affect your team?
A - It was good when it wasn't raining earlier as it was not affecting (our) training but we are adapting to these conditions. When it rains, the ground is heavy and also we are adjusting to the different pitches in Malaysia. It was good that we came a bit ahead of the competition and it will help us a lot during it as well.
Q - India has been very active in the junior circuit lately. What's your take on that?
A - Yes, India has been doing a lot since the last ten years or so. India has changed and we are not what we were before. The coaching education has changed and the young coaches who are working at the grassroots level are doing a fantastic job. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has done a good job in coaches' education. Things are changing and hopefully, in the future, India will do much better.
Q - What do you make of India's opponents in the group stage - Indonesia, Iran and Vietnam?
A - At this stage, there is no team which is easy and the competition is very high. There is a very thin margin for the mistakes and in the victories you get, margins are very thin. I feel it will not be easy but we will try our best, give our best and take each match as it comes.
Q - Indian U-16 team has played several international teams in the last 21 months. How helpful have the exposure and matches been?
A - Yes, these exposure trips have come thanks to AIFF and SAI (Sports Authority of India). This is one of a kind and never been given to any other team in the past. Most importantly, we were given chances to play in competitions.
We used to go and play four-nation competitions and participate in tournaments. This has helped the team. When you play competitions, there is pressure to win the match which puts pressure on the players. So all these things we have come across with the help of SAI and AIFF. We have been preparing well.
This was the best preparation and the facilities what we got from AIFF through SAI. It has been a great experience since January.
Q - How did these exposure tours help you as a coach?
A - It was a good experience for us because we played in different regions, different types of opponents. For me and my staff, it was a good learning experience because different teams played with different styles, different formations and systems.
So it was good for me to learn how I could improve and adapt my team as quick as possible to the style of play of the opponents.
Q - Can India match up against the best sides in Asia? The semifinalists can go to U17 World Cup next year, is that an objective?
We have played good teams and although we lost few of the matches, they weren't one-sided games. We are there, we are close and the gap between us and the best teams in Asia isn't much. We will be closing that gap and I hope we continue the same performance in the AFC (U16 Championship) as well.