Luis Norton de Matos, who had led India at the recently concluded FIFA U-17 World Cup, has been handed the responsibility of another age-group side and is more interested in the experience that the outfit will earn in the next few days.
“The top team from each group qualifies and then there is an option for the best-placed second teams. It would be a fantastic experience. In Europe, we have five age-level competitions for each year, U-16 to U-20. Here, there is a gap of two years. For some players, it would be the last chance to play the U-19 championship. They are ready to fight it out,” he told Goal.
The coach stressed that many among this current batch will be regulars for the senior national team in the coming years and the most important job is to ensure they reach that stage fully prepared.
“The more difficult games they play, the more experienced they become. In the World Cup, the most important thing was that the people were proud about the team, were enthusiastic about the team. They believed that there is a possibility of this team doing something good in the future.
“The way I see the fusion of U15 to U19 teams, in some years they are going to be the senior players. This is the key thing for me. If you have results, very good - because it makes people more confident about the project. If the target is to reach that line, I can fall three, four, five times on my way; but when I reach there, I need to be ready for the challenge,” he added.
Matos has promoted the core of his U-17 side besides bringing in a few players from the U-19 team to complement them. Over the last few weeks, the coach had a tough time finding the perfect balance. The team’s 1-0 win against Garhwal FC in a friendly was the only occasion when he got the chance to catch all the probables in action.
“A friendly is like a practice session to me. I would like to see the players in an individual and collective way to get the best mix that we can have. These games are not competitive ones that we play to win, even though it is important. For me, more important than winning is to look at whether we can follow the same way that we were trying at the World Cup,” he said.
Mixing and matching two different groups was not easy even though he stressed that once the selection was done, they became a single unit.
“For me, the most important thing is how I build our way to play. I have had only eight sessions with the U-19’s before leaving for Qatar. We are always playing in a way and the new players will have to adapt to that. I have an idea for the game and the players must understand the interpretations. It’s not about who is old in this team and who is new. If there are a few new faces in the team, we will have to work again on who defends the corners, who defends the free-kicks, who tracks back when we lose the ball.”
“The players of U19, I think, has more experience. I think at this moment, we have more rhythm and they have more experience. I have already told them – for me, these are not two teams. Like you have 34 year old footballers and 32 years old footballers in the national team, it’s the same here. Some of the U17 boys have the maturity when they have the ball. Why? Because till now, they had prepared for something very difficult,” he opined.
The team has struggled to convert their chances in the recent past, which led to the exclusion of Aniket Jadhav from the squad. Rahim Ali’s brace in the last friendly is a relief for Matos, who conceded that finishing needs to be better.
“One thing is that we are not being able to score many goals. But that is better than a team that can’t create any possibility to score. This is a question involving mental approach because we need to have be calmer at those situations,” he said.
While the gaffer looked content with the preparation of his team, he was mindful of the kind of threat hosts Saudi Arabia can pose in the opener.
“The Saudi Arabian boys are strong and tall. They play some intense football with their free-kicks and corners and can be direct as well. To win aerial duels against them, we need to be prepared. I am not worried about the organization of the team because we are organized and we have shown that.
“But, we must not forget we will be playing against Arabia at their home and they have representatives among the top 8-10 clubs of Asia. That’s one level above (us). If we were to play in India, we would have 30-40 thousand people and it would have been completely different,” he said.
Once the qualifiers are over, the team will get ready to participate in the I-League as the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has decided to reinstate its Arrows team in the top-tier league. Matos is a staunch supporter of the move and claimed that playing six months in the top division can help earn experience which is gathered in three years under regular circumstances.
“If we play the I-Legaue with this kind of a mixed team, of course, we lose games. But every game, all 18 of them, will be a victory for our experience. In short time, four to five months, you make up for three years of competitive football. People say we are going to play to win. To win what, the title? No. I have the experience of coaching B teams in Portugal. Why do big clubs in Spain play 16-17 year old players in Segunda division? Because it is important for player development,” he signed off.