As Boris Thangjam took advantage of another Chennai City FC mistake to slot the ball home in the 90th minute, everyone associated with Indian Arrows was overjoyed. A 3-0 dismantling of the opposition — which finished eighth in the I-League last season — to begin life anew.
Speaking to the media afterwards, coach Luis Norton de Matos, was convinced that the tactical gains outweighed the obvious physical disadvantage. The Portuguese coach had stuck to the backline which had brought India four points in the final two Asian Football Confederation (AFC) under-19 qualifiers in November — Boris, Jitendra Singh, Anwar Ali and Sanjeev Stalin. It is important to the process, he says, that the players feel trusted, backed.
The results, though, do not matter, as everyone associated with the project will tell you. But starting the season with a 3-0 win has never hurt anyone. It is worth emphasising that de Matos is in this for the long run. The coach set the goal out for his latest project, when he spoke to Sportstar .
“They will be very good examples for the next generation. This is the process. You put this team together and perhaps in five years you will have a very good team. And never did India have such a strong quality at this age level. When you will have results later, you will look at this starting point. This is the reason why I’m very proud and satisfied of being with this team here. Because this is a very professional team. In my life, this is a big challenge also.”
It is a big challenge, indeed. The results do not matter now because India wants to qualify for the 2020 AFC under-19 championship and challenge for the FIFA under-20 World Cup in 2021. Two seasons of I-League football are supposed to train the colts and help them mature beyond their years.
De Matos is certain that his side will be no pushover in the I-League either. “You need to start the process. From the under-17 (World Cup) to under-19 (AFC qualifiers) to I-League, we jump three to four steps in experience. The I-League teams are very strong, they are senior, they are men. Yes, that is the reality. But the problem is that we are 10 years behind playing experience. That’s why I want to play the I-League. It gives something extraordinary. You can have 100 training sessions but it is not going to put the problems that the I-League will. We are going to put problems to the teams, even if we lose.”
If the beginning is a reliable indicator, that certainly seems to be the case. With the Indian Arrows made up of players from the under-19 Indian side and the under-17 World Cup squad, it is expected that they will experience an unprecedented growth spurt. The Arrows project has been revived by the AIFF’s incumbent head, Praful Patel. It has only been four years since the previous squad was disbanded owing to financial concerns. The results were mixed too.
AIFF developmental squad
At the suggestion of the then senior national team’s coach Bob Houghton, an AIFF developmental squad was set up in 2010. Consisting of players from I-League clubs’ under-19 and under-23 rosters, the Arrows finished ninth (out of 14 teams) in their inaugural season. With players like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Pritam Kotal, among others, in the fray, the side gave opportunities for competitive football to players who would go on to become a part of the senior setup.
The success of the opening season brought the Pailan Group on board as the main sponsor, with the team subsequently called the Pailan Arrows. However, the performances dipped afterwards. The Arrows finished 13th under Sukhwinder Singh, who had taken over from Desmond Bulpin. They would have been relegated, if not for the exemption provided by the AIFF. However, it should not have mattered.
If the plan was to develop players and not seek trophies, why worry when the results go south? But Singh left after the disappointing campaign and it was Arthur Papas, the then coach of the India under-23 team, who stepped in to take charge. The trouble was that the focus had shifted. Even now, as he revealed to a publication earlier this year, the Australian coach admits that results had assumed importance.
“My objective was to ensure that the Arrows were not relegated, while building a team that played a proactive, possession-style of football. This is a great way to develop young players and the pressure of the result is also important for them to build their resilience and decision making,” says Papas.
Indeed, therein lies the tussle. If you are part of a competition, to what extent can you not worry about the results on the pitch? Not to mention, losing frequently can affect the morale of any side. Another issue, which has come up recently, is that the players may not have to fight for their place, unlike at other clubs.
Ajax Amsterdam’s academy manager Corne Gronendijk discussed those fears with ESPN.in . “It is better than sending them individually to clubs where they don’t get a chance to play together, but I see it as a medicine to make someone better when he could have been healthy in the first place. As a medicine I would say it is a good choice, but not so much as a health policy.”
Well, not that Indian football is in good health. In an appropriate ecosystem, it will not be incumbent upon the federation alone to develop young footballers. But the underwhelming state of youth football in India means that clubs often shirk their responsibility to train youngsters. The AIFF does not have a proud record either; it was almost forced to look at scouting and developing young footballers due to India hosting the FIFA under-17 World Cup.
Disbanding of the side
It is worth recalling that poor results did contribute to the disbanding of the Pailan Arrows. In their final I-League campaign, the colts merely avoided finishing in the relegation spots by claiming the 12th position. Not even the Rs. 700 crore deal struck by the AIFF and IMG-Reliance in 2010 could save the team; it is a comment on the short-termism in Indian football that it did not even take half a decade for the Arrows project to be revived. In the aftermath of the World Cup, there has been a renewed commitment to underage football. But the lid needs to be kept firmly on the bubbling pot of euphoria. De Matos is mindful of that.
“For the I-League, if you watch the future, I know exactly where we can go in two years from my experience. I believe in the process of systematic training, making of similar players. It’s more difficult for someone like a fan who wants victories. Some people say, ‘Coach, we are going to win the World Cup.’ It is completely impossible. When you see the level of England, Spain, Mali, Ghana, Germany, England… Even if you spend 10 million Euros, it is impossible. You can go in a car now and show me a fantastic field. Ask me to build a project with big, big buildings. But you need to put the foundations. In two years, you can have a fantastic building. Football is the same.”
The coach has emphasised that there needs to be a different standard to assess the development of young players. De Matos made a conscious recommendation to not let the under-17 boys play in the AIFF Youth League (under-18). It would have been too easy, he contended.
De Matos added, “I explained it to the federation that you need to think of Indian football in 10 years. These players will be 26-27. They need to have a process of competition, the starting point was the World Cup. This team needs to compete and challenge. One thing I’m sure of is that they have a strong mentality in this moment. They’re not afraid to play.”
However, one does need to urge caution over the federation’s approach. Short sightedness has been a valid criticism of local football administrators in the past and it continues to be a menace. Indian football continues to believe in the benefits of exposure tours, despite there being little evidence on the ground that it actually benefits the players. De Matos is wary of the fact that you could play anybody in a friendly, without being sure of the competence of your opponent.
That is why India’s 0-5 thrashing at the hands of Saudi Arabia in the first AFC qualifier should be considered as a reliable guide. The 3-0 win in the final game over Turkmenistan, while encouraging, should be attached with a cautionary note though. None of the opposition players had previously featured at that level and they lost all of their matches.
The challenge now will be to ensure India does not feel out of place when the qualifiers come around in two years’ time. To get his ideas across, de Matos has struck a keen working relationship with AIFF’s Director of Scouting and former international, Abhishek Yadav. The former striker, expectedly, had only words of appreciation for the Portuguese coach when he responded to Sportstar . “It’s the perfect professional relationship. There is a lot to observe and absorb from his experiences in football.”
Indeed, the faith put in de Matos by the AIFF is fairly obvious. But the coach wants the belief to be reciprocated. He is insistent that the AIFF build a national centre for excellence, which is said to be in the pipeline now. Furthermore, de Matos argues, “the coach needs the help of coaches, managers, even the media. I don’t have the time to go see every player. But, for example, you are a coach and you tell me that you have two very good players born in 2001. I can share the profile of players I want with coaches, clubs and academies. Then they can bring players to the camps and I can watch them. 20 players, for example, two per position. For sure, if you were to do this around the country, you’ll find very good players across the country. You’ll be surprised how strong and quick they are.”
One could argue that de Matos needs to be judged on what transpires now. Appointed seven months before the World Cup, the Portuguese coach was dealt a tough hand. But now, he is laying down his authority on the team. Komal Thatal’s non-selection for the Arrows shows that the profile of the player is paramount in de Matos’ system. The Sikkimese winger was considered to be a slight physical presence during the World Cup.
The AIFF has also ensured that de Matos got three of his favourites on board. Jeakson Singh, Nongdamba Naorem and Anwar Ali have been signed on loan from Minerva FC. Despite the accusations that scouting wasn’t done smoothly during the World Cup, the federation is backing the bunch on which it spent nearly Rs. 15 crore in preparation for the World Cup. Perhaps, there is a golden age of Indian football around the corner. The under-16s qualification for next year’s AFC Championship was certainly a boost to India’s hopes of becoming a reliable force on the continental front. Now, as the AIFF and de Matos argue, it is about getting games under the belt and ensuring that these players get on the pathway to development.
It may seem like a pipe dream to consider India among the Asia’s best in a decade’s time but de Matos and the AIFF are squinting hard. There will be growing pains, the eyes will hurt, but they believe they will get where they want to be. The renewal of the Arrows project is the latest experiment in Indian football.
One can only hope that the powers that be, for once, will not go chasing after short-term acclamation.
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