“I keep saying that these opportunities won't come all the time. India has never qualified for the U17 World Cup (on merit). But I say we will win the AFC U-16 Championship this time and also play in the U17 World Cup. I have full confidence in my team to do that,” the India U16 forward and skipper had declared just before the start of the continental competition.
"Back home there are mixed opinions about us but I know that we will surely qualify (for the U17 World Cup) and become AFC (U-16) champions,” he added for good measure.
A few years ago, it would have been easy for football fans in India to dismiss this statement for its sheer audacity. However, this time, the confidence of the young India starlet is not at all misplaced.
The confidence in Vikram’s declaration comes not due to any teenage misjudgment but from the security of having undergone the most thorough of preparations possible for the tournament in Malaysia.
In the last few months leading up to the tournament, the India U16s have been grabbing eyeballs on a regular basis with their displays in overseas exposure trips against pedigreed opponents.
While the preparations for the continental competition have been in full swing since the turn of 2017, they intensified it in 2018.
After a busy preparatory period in recent months, things are all coming together quite nicely for Bibiano Fernandes and his colts with the victory over Vietnam being the most positive reinforcement of the ‘project’ being on the right track.
Make no mistake, it has been an ambitious project which has involved multiple stakeholders contributing to the hilt in their own capacity. Credit needs to be given to both the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for their commitment towards a common cause.
When the team secured their passage to Malaysia by finishing second in the qualifiers held at Nepal last year, the AIFF outlined an ambitious plan in a presentation to SAI.
The presentation which was made jointly by AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das and Director of National teams Abhishek Yadav, envisioned a long-term outlook for development of the current team. They were to be continuously groomed and developed for the 2021 FIFA U20 World Cup till as far as the 2024 Olympics.
Buying into this vision, SAI released substantial additional funds of INR 9 crores for the team’s preparation. While SAI and the Government deserve plenty of credit for loosening their purse strings, the AIFF should be lauded for utilising the funds to the maximum.
Yadav, being a former India international, seems to have utilised his experience to ensure the money was spent well. Kushal Das also requires credit for approving the project and ensuring it came to fruition.
Since the funds were released, the team’s preparations moved at breakneck speeds with training camps and practice matches at Dubai and Qatar have been followed by participation in tournaments in the likes of Hong Kong, Spain, Serbia, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Turkey and Jordan.
The standard of oppositions faced in these exposure trips got progressively better and even more hearteningly, so did the results.
Rarely has such detailed preparation been afforded to any Indian National Team and it has all come about due to the stakeholders in Indian football all buying into a collective long-term vision.
Vietnam’s youth teams have been making rapid strides in the past few years and made headlines when the U20 outfit qualified for the FIFA U20 World Cup in 2017. As such, India’s win over them to kick things off in Malaysia bodes well for the team’s chances of going deep into the tournament.
A good start is half the battle won for Vikram and his team. They will be aiming for much greater things in Malaysia in the coming days. They might do the unthinkable and achieve the impossible. They might even crash out in the group stages for all we know. Their long-term project though is set to go on and one can hope that the stakeholders will see it through to the finish line.
For now, the AIFF and SAI deserve the plaudits.