‘We are almost certain to get the World Cup’

Narayana Menon...under-14 coach.-

“FIFA is keen to have the Under-17 World Cup in India, which is potentially the biggest market in world football. I am sure the sport will get a huge facelift in the country if we are to host the Under-17 World Cup,” says Narayana Menon in this interview with P. K. Ajith Kumar.

Narayana Menon has worked with India’s senior football team, as well as its Under-23, 19 and 16 squads. He has also trained Indian Arrows in the I-League, but he rates his current assignment — as the chief coach of India’s Under-14 side — as the most challenging of all.

“If you want to see India doing anything of note on football’s global stage, you have to catch talents when they are really young and train them,” said the Kerala-based coach in an interview to Sportstar. Excerpts:

Question: How would you rate India’s performance at the Asian Under-14 qualifiers in Iran a few weeks ago?

Answer: We didn’t qualify, and nobody expected us to, but I thought the boys did pretty well. It was a tough group that we played in, but we won two games and finished third behind Iran and Pakistan. The highlights were our victories against Kyrgyzstan (4-0) and Turkmenistan (4-1). I am happy with the way the boys played there, against tougher opponents. The match commissioner from Singapore was so impressed with one of our players, Ajay Alex Antony, that he presented a gift to him. Ajay is a natural. And I have high hopes about boys like Abhijit Sarkar, Khumanthem Ninthoinganba, Jitendra Singh, Shubham Sarangi and Abu Thahir as well.

You are training these boys at the All India Football Federation (AIFF) academy in Goa. Tell us about the academy.

The academy kicked off at the Fr. Agnel Multipurpose Higher Secondary School, Verna, near Margao, last February. I am the head coach at the academy and am assisted by Jude Barreto and Mario Aguiar. We are all guided by Rob Baan, the AIFF technical director. We have 24 boys there, but could accommodate up to 35. Though we selected the trainees from the National Championships, it is open to any talented boy recommended by a coach. He could practise with us for a week and if he is good, he will be absorbed by the academy.

Don’t you think we have to catch them even younger, as they do abroad?

Yes, we need academies for children below the age of eight. But such academies could only be for weekends, as boys of such a young age cannot be expected to live away from home.

The Union Government has announced its support of the AIFF bid for hosting the Under-17 World Cup in 2017. How bright are India’s chances of winning the bid?

Very. Now that we have the blessings of the Government, we are almost certain to get the World Cup, I feel. FIFA is keen to have the Under-17 World Cup in India, which is potentially the biggest market in world football. I am sure the sport will get a huge facelift in the country if we are to host the Under-17 World Cup. It is a huge tournament featuring the most promising talents in football from around the world. There will be big coverage in the media and that will attract more youngsters to the game, but we should ensure that there are enough academies and trained coaches for those wanting to play football. We would also get better infrastructure for football. I think this is a golden opportunity for Indian football. It is our last bus, which we cannot afford to miss.

You were part of the Indian Arrows. A junior team in the I-League… it was a nice concept, wasn’t it?

Yes, we all had great hopes about that team and we did very well too. It is distressing to see its current plight. I feel the I-League could only be better if it had a strong, junior side like Arrows. There should in fact be such teams from every zone. Only if you nurture young talents, you can hope to see India improve at the senior level.