After a historic win in Serbia, the India U-16 team have set their sights on the AFC U-16 Championship. They have been camping in Kolkata for almost a month and are set to fly to China on July 1 for another exposure tour where they will lock horns against horns against the hosts, DPR Korea and Thailand.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) have left no stone unturned to ensure the India colts are well prepared for the tournament in Malaysia in September. AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das and Abhishek Yadav (Director of Indian National Teams) have been instrumental in convincing the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports and the SAI to grant a massive sum for the India U16 team at the start of this year so that the team is able to participate in foreign tournaments.
Head coach Bibiano Fernandes heaped praise on the efforts put in by the apex governing body of football in India and acknowledged their constant support.
"The support has been wonderful from AIFF and SAI. They have made it a point that this team takes part in competitions abroad which will help us to test our mettle against quality opponents and hence improve our game. We are flying to China to continue with our preparations and this would not have been possible without AIFF's support. I guess this is the best preparation one can have. Now we should look forward to repaying the trust shown in us by performing well in Malaysia," said Fernandes to Goal.
The team has been playing a string of friendlies against local sides in Kolkata to remain in shape. They won against Mayor's XI U18s (3-1), Bidhan Nagar Municipal Football Association U18s (5-0) and Young Men's Football Club U19s (5-1). Although they drew twice when they faced the U18 team of East Bengal, it has to be noted that they were playing superior age group teams.
There has been criticism that the team has been playing weak, local teams but Bibiano feels that such games are required to boost the morale of the team.
"These games give us a lot of confidence. It is a morale boost for our strikers when they are getting the goals. We also try and utilize this opportunity to try out new moves in the attacking third. But they are not going to get complacent. They are a hungry bunch which makes them different. They have the desire to win it when it matters and they have a target to work towards (AFC U16 Championship)."
This team won silverware in Serbia after defeating Tajikistan 4-2 in their final game. An earlier win over Jordan and a stalemate with Serbia meant that India finished as table-toppers with seven points in their kitty. Fernandes believes that their victory in Serbia has helped change the outlook and mindset of this team.
"It was important for the boys to win in Serbia as it boosted their confidence and self-belief. But we are not elated. It is a process. Our goal is to do well in Malaysia which is the AFC Championship. It was really important to believe in themselves. Previously we used to approach cautiously whenever we played any foreign opponent. But now the team has started to believe in themselves that they can beat any side," said the former India U-14 coach.
But Fernandes knows that taking on teams like Iran, Vietnam and Indonesia in the group stage of the AFC Championship will be a totally different ball-game. Iran is a more physically astute team than India whereas the other two nations have the capability to give India a run for their money on any given day.
"I would say that they are more physically dominant than our players. But technically there is not much gap between the teams. I have seen Iran playing in Qatar. Physically they are better than us. We are working on that and focussing more on our strengths. We have watched some videos of Vietnam. They are fast developing into a footballing powerhouse by playing organised football. But the boys have it in them what it takes to succeed at the top level," believes the gaffer.
From China, the Blue Cubs will fly to Thailand where they will play two matches against the Thailand U-16 national team and efforts are on to organise two more matches against the youth teams of the top clubs from the Thai league.
From Thailand, they will fly to Malaysia to take on the Malaysia U16 team a couple of times.