When you listen to Praful Patel talking about his vision for Indian football, you have no choice but to feel optimistic. The President of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) strikes the right chord and sounds greatly enthused about building a team for the future.
Being a politician, Patel cleverly evades some straightforward questions and then urges the the media persons to avoid scepticism and respond positively to the steps aimed at improving the status of football in the country.
Just as teams for the Under-17 FIFA World Cup start landing in the capital, Patel has his lines ready about fielding a competitive Indian team in its first FIFA competition. “We committed ourselves to build a fine competitive team. It has been an ongoing process for a long time.
“The scouting was in professional hands and we have put at least three years of hard work to build this team. The coach had full liberty and absolutely no compromises have been made,” Patel says.
After all, India has never played in any FIFA World Cup and even this rare opportunity has come the nation’s way only because it’s hosting the event. Patel is quick to acknowledge the role of FIFA in India winning the right to host the 24-team event. “FIFA is very keen to see India’s transition from a football nation of the past to a football nation of the future. And this is something to be really proud of.”
In fact, there has been some serious effort on the part of the AIFF in building a strong team aimed at the Under-17 World Cup. The nucleus of the team was formed over three years ago and the side was groomed as a cohesive unit. As late as January this year, the AIFF decided to replace German coach Nicolai Adams with Luis Norton de Matos of Portugal.
The new coach was instrumental in getting some practice matches for the squad in Portugal in April-May, though a win-less India lost five out of six encounters.
Since then, not surprisingly, there have been only three victories in 16 outings against teams of varied strengths. And the coach is quick to remind the home supporters not to expect miracles from the team. Patel strikes a more optimistic note when asked about the future of this team.
“We want Luis Norton de Matos to continue beyond the World Cup. Even the boys in the team are now thinking of their future beyond this tournament. The AIFF wants them to play together even after the tournament and we will ensure they have a competitive format,” he says.
After the Under-17 World Cup, the plan is to combine players from the Under-19 and Under-17 teams and field a side in the I-League which will provide the players a competitive environment and allow them to play together continuously. This is exactly what de Matos wants from the AIFF.
In the meantime, another pool of players will replace the outgoing batch of under-17 players.
“We are happy to continue the overseas scouting programme and if there is available talent that complies with the government regulations then we will be more than happy to encourage them as they are also as Indian as we all are,” says Patel.
A new beginning seems to have been made. Now let’s hope that Patel’s words and vision get translated into action for a better tomorrow for Indian football.
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