Nicolai Adam, the first man of Indian youth football

"Exposure trips in order to get match experience at the highest level are the only means to get the Indian team prepared for the under-17 World Cup. We will continue doing this and we will even intensify it. That means more international matches from now on against National teams from all over the world and even against older teams," says Indian youth coach Nicolai Adam.

Nicolai Adam... the grassroots man.   -  PRASHANT NAKWE

Adam interacts with football great Baichung Bhutia and the AIFF Director of Scouting Abhishek Yadav.   -  PRASHANT NAKWE

Adam explains a point to one of his wards.   -  AIFF

German Nicolai Adam was brought in by the All India Football Federation in 2015 to guide the Indian junior team in the 2017 FIFA under-17 World Cup which the nation will be hosting. Adam comes with the right credentials, having worked wonders with the Azerbaijan youth setup, guiding the country’s under-19 team to the UEFA Elite level. A former DFB (German Football Association) International Development Officer, Adam has scouted far and wide, unearthing a batch of youngsters, who have done admirably well during exposure trips to Germany, Norway and West Asia.

His team’s first real competitive test came in the recently concluded Under-16 Asia Cup in Goa. The Indian boys, who are set to be the mainstay of the squad in next year’s FIFA showpiece, finished last in their group, showing a worrying penchant for conceding late goals. There were still a few positives and Adam talks to Sportstar about his assessment of his wards and his football philosophy.

Question: What is your impression of the Indian team’s performance at the recent AFC U-16 Championship?

Answer: I’m satisfied with the way we presented ourselves to the Indian football fraternity. I’m not satisfied with the overall result. I know and I knew before that we are good enough to compete in Asia at the highest level. If I can turn back time, I will pick U-19 club teams in Germany and Norway as opponents during our exposure trips (to give the boys more confidence).

 

What are the plus points that you will be taking away from this tournament?

You can’t buy experience! Official international matches, a highly competitive match experience, is what we got and that’s a big plus. We know we are not easy to beat.

Where will you place India in the Asian football ladder based on the team’s performance in Goa?

Firstly, I would like to specify that I will answer this question with regard to my team only. My assistant coach did the maths and told me that we are basically 11th within the tournament (AFC Championship) now.

The team conceded late goals against Saudi Arabia after going ahead. Even against UAE, two goals were conceded in the second half. What would you attribute this to? A momentary lapse in concentration or the players tiring in the second session?

Definitely a momentary lapse in concentration. At the highest level it is about ‘making no mistakes’. We analysed all our matches together with the players and we talked about our mistakes which we need to avoid. However, in theory it is all clear and easy, but in reality it’s not.

Our main focus is on hunting better for the ball, to get possession back and create goal-scoring opportunities. As long as you have the ball, it’s impossible for the opponent to score.

Which teams impressed you the most in the event?

Only Japan impressed me from a football point of view. The technical ability of every single player is amazing and so is their tactical flexibility. The Japanese players are able to play at least in 2-3 positions within their team. It’s beautiful to watch them and their fluent football based on great technical skills and not on physical qualities.

You missed five key players, including your No. 10, Abhijit Sarkar, due to various reasons. You had been quite vocal about it at the start of the season. How much did the team miss the services of these players?

I have mentioned it before. It means less options and less competition amongst the players. And yes, I have been quite vocal about it, but not to find excuses for us! The second cut off to ‘avoid age cheating’ makes no sense in my opinion and is not in the best interest of football and the development of young football players. I will be vocal about it in the future, too, until the rule is finally changed for the better.

 

The team, which is also going to participate in next year’s U-17 World Cup, has done reasonably well during its exposure tours to Europe. How have these trips helped and what are the plans for further exposure?

Exposure trips in order to get match experience at the highest level are the only means to get the team prepared for what is to come. We will continue doing this and we will even intensify it. That means more international matches from now on against National teams from all over the world and even against older teams.

What will be a reasonable expectation from the Indian side at the U-17 World Cup?

As I have said many times, we will be highly competitive. Every single player and all staff members will work hard with full passion at all times. This kind of attitude is what we stand for — hard work and honest football. People in the stadium have a pretty good understanding whether there is authenticity or not. We will be a team in the World Cup, independent of results, that Indian people can be proud of.

Are you happy with the nucleus of the squad? Or can we expect changes before the big event?

A football coach is never satisfied. I will always look for better options and at the same time try to make every single player of the team, who is available now, better. The door for new players stays open and there is a reason why we have Abhishek Yadav in charge of scouting.

There’s always talk about talent pools and infrastructure in India. What is your opinion?

India with its size should have hundreds, maybe thousands of artificial football pitches and thousands of qualified coaches. The better the infrastructure, together with the coaching of the youngest (from 4-6 years old), the bigger the number of players to select from at the U-14/15 level. The better the chance too, to find talented ones.

How difficult is it in a country like India, with its geographical challenges, to scout for talent?

It’s like anywhere else in the world. The answer to the size of a country is a higher number of qualified scouts/coaches. The answer to geographical challenges is modern ways of transportation. That’s how I see it.

What are your expectations from the AIFF’s newly launched overseas scouting programme?

It’s a great idea and an opportunity to get in touch with Indians holding a valid Indian passport and living abroad. However, it does not replace the actual physical scouting.

What are the qualities in a player that you will be looking for in this programme?

I give you a definition to answer the question — talent means that a player has at least one outstanding football related ability, within the age group. And, of course, they should also have the ability to learn quickly and be determined.

 

At the continental level, India has always done better at the Junior grade. Why do you think Indian players fail to make the transition from a good youth player to a great senior professional?

I can’t really answer the question, because a) this is not the focus of my work here in India right now and b) I do not even know whether this is the case. The period of transition to a professional football player (after U-17, therefore U-18/19) needs the best coaching on and off the pitch. If that is done and a player’s performance shows stagnation at this transition time, you have to question the age of the player.

Following up on your answer, tackling age fraud is a major factor at the youth level. As a youth or development coach how do you deal with the menace?

Yes, I agree, age fraud is the biggest problem with regard to football development. This is how I deal with it: whenever I select a player, I do it based on his skills — handling of the ball, first touch, ball-action speed from receiving to releasing, ability to turn with the ball and accelerate, ability to act precisely under pressure and at high speed, etc. — and not his physique.

The last thing that interests me is his size or how much muscle he has. I believe in the German way with regard to this. Result in youth football is not the most important thing. More important is to develop the player. Don’t get me wrong. I hate to lose and I always want to win, of course.

This is what I ask my players: a) Do you want to become a professional football player? b) Do you want to make a good living for yourself and your family? c) Is there big money in youth football or in adult football?

When you really think about the answers to all these questions, you can only come to one conclusion: never do age-cheating. If you are more talented and bigger than the others in your age-group then try to play against older ones and not the other way around.

That’s the only way to really make it to the top, where the bigger money is. I feel sorry for age-cheaters. It’s the most stupid thing you can do and it is basically a guarantee to not realising your full potential.

The German DFB’s ‘Extended Talent Promotion Programme’, after the team’s poor performance in EURO 2000, changed the course of German football. Your view?

Because of this programme there is basically no problem to replace older players with younger ones. Germany produces talented football players constantly through this programme. Do the research yourself. Look at the squad that won in Brazil, look at all youth National teams, look at the squads of the Bundesliga teams and so on… it speaks for itself.

What should be the role of ISL and other clubs in the youth development setup?

The ISL is a great idea to promote football in India. The stands are full; it’s a real attraction with good TV coverage and so on. This interest in the beautiful game has to be channelised into football development as well. Would it not be a great idea to have ISL youth teams of different age-groups competing as well? Imagine a U-16 match before the actual ISL match in front of a good crowd. I trust that the stakeholders of Indian football have good ideas and plans to make football at least the number two sport in India.

(As appeared in sportstar.thehindu.com on October 12, 2016)

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