With the FIFA U17 World Cup less than two months away from commencing, the Indian U17 team looks to be safe in the good hands of their Portuguese coach Luis Norton de Matos, with the latest evidence pointing to it being the 1-1 draw on 6th August against Latin American giants Chile.
However, the situation did not look promising at all back in January when German coach Nicolai Adam, initially recruited in 2015 to nurture a team for the World Cup, was embroiled in a controversy and was sacked by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), leading many to question how the team would perform in the showpiece tournament.
When FIFA awarded the hosting rights of the 2017 edition of the U17 World Cup to India, there was palpable excitement among the connoisseurs of Indian football, given that this was the first time an event of this magnitude was coming to the country.
But it was mixed with concern, in no small measure, since there were question marks as to how the Indian team would fare against the bigwigs of the beautiful game.
After 'not-so-encouraging' performances in exposure tours under Adam, things boiled over when India performed poorly in the 16-team Granatkin memorial youth tournament in Russia, finishing last and culminating in the sacking of Adam.
The biggest concern at this point of time was that, the coach coming in at this point would not have much time to mould the squad and could always point to the fact that he was brought in at the last moment. As a result, AIFF's priority was to hire a coach who was extremely motivated for the gig.
Former Benfica B coach Luis Norton de Matos was roped in and he has put all those doubts to rest, evidenced by the results of the team during their European tour, organised at the behest of the Portuguese coach.
They played the youth teams of several top teams in Portugal, including Belenenses, Benfica, Estoril and Sporting CP and managed a creditable draw against Benfica U17 in one of the games. This was followed by the now 'infamous' 2-0 win over a team of U17 players from second and third division clubs in Italy.
The team's excellent performances continued in the Lazio Cup as well, where they managed two wins and a draw against Lazio U17 team. Another couple of results that stood out where 0-0 draws against Serbia and Macedonia.
Now, Norton de Matos' team has pulled off another great result by holding 2017 South American U17 championship runners-up Chile to a 1-1 draw in the four nations tournament in Mexico. Despite losses to Mexico and Colombia, the result against Chile shows the team is certainly in the right path.
The sentiment was echoed by FIFA U17 World Cup tournament director Javier Ceppi, who expressed on social media after the result - "Huge result, Chile was runner up of South America. India showing how competitive it can be. Spoke to Chile coach, praised India highly."
All these makes for a positive outlook for the team as they near the ultimate test in October, but what really changed between January and August?
Norton de Matos, an excellent analyst of youth players, identified the sort of players he wanted to strengthen the team. He was concerned by the lack of physicality in the team and utilised the National Scouts Director Abhishek Yadav's brainchild, the AIFF-SAI Overseas Scouting Programme (OSP), to find talents who hold Indian passports in other countries.
In came defender Namit Deshpande (a US-based NRI) and the towering 6'5" tall goalkeeper Sunny Dhaliwal, who denounced his Canadian passport in order to play for the team.
Incidentally, Nongdamba Naorem, the goalscorer in the Chile game, and Aniket Singh, who gave the assist for that goal, were identified by Norton de Matos from the domestic scouting programme under Abhishek Yadav, outlining the all-inclusive approach of the coach.
India will play several more good teams in the run up to the tournament to ensure they will be at their best in October. Even then, the World Cup is not going to be a breeze in any way for the Indian team but there is optimism that the team can put up a creditable show under the able guidance of the Portuguese tactician.