AFC U-16 Championship: Confident of Strong Showing, India U-16 Football Team Have Task Cut Out in Malaysia
The national team’s youngest age group side is set to face their toughest test thus far, when they begin their campaign in the AFC U-16 Championship in Malaysia against Vietnam on September 21, followed by group stage games against traditional powerhouse Iran and Indonesia.
New Delhi: In recent years, youth teams in Indian football have been making quite a noise, and also been raking in the air miles with the numerous exposure trips around the globe. The national team’s youngest age group side is set to face their toughest test thus far at the AFC U-16 Championship in Malaysia where they begin their campaign against Vietnam on September 21, followed by group stage games against traditional powerhouse Iran and Indonesia.
Coached by Bibiano Fernandes, the Indian team made their way to Malaysia a week ahead of the tournament kicks off as they look to acclimatize to local conditions. The young side come into the competition with the hope of bettering the past records, and on the back of a good streak of results wherein they lost only once in their last in ten matches.
The Indian Colts recently registered morale-boosting wins against Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Cameroon, Oman and Turkish club Besiktas, while losing only to Japan (2-1) in the second game of the WAFF U-16 Championship in August.
“This is a very talented squad with immense hunger to succeed. The team is full of leaders and very strong and motivated characters that won’t back down or panic in a difficult situation,” explains Bibiano Fernandes over the phone from Malaysia.
India’s best performance in their previous seven appearances at the competition was in 2002 when they progressed from the group stages. The Blue Colts will be up against some stiff opposition in Group C, where they will need to finish within the top two to progress to the knockout stages. But the team is not unduly worried about the strength of their oppositions, and is firmly focusing on doing well.
“There is not much motivational talking that needs to happen with this team. I’ve always said this team is different from the previous ones and I’ll say it again, they are hungry and never satisfied,” says the coach.
“They know the games will be tough, everyone has earned the right to make it here and there won’t be an easy game. But the boys are ready.”
Against Vietnam and Indonesia, the Indian team will have tricky oppositions who have made rapid strides in terms of progress at the youth level. Vietnam’s best finish in the competition was the quarter-final in 2016 in India.
Indonesia on the other hand, has come off a FIFA ban for government interference to with the running of the sport, and booked their ticket to Malaysia by topping the qualifying group which also had Thailand, Laos, Timor-Leste and Northern Mariana Islands. Since, they have gone on to win the 12 nation 2017 JENESYS Japan-ASEAN U16 tournament and the 2018 ASEAN Football Federation title.
India’s toughest test in the group stages will come against the traditional powerhouse Iran. In the Asian context, Iran’s prowess is well documented, and in last year’s FIFA U17 World Cup, they went till the quarter-finals - their best performance at the competition.
“If you look at our draw in the group stage we have been pitted against some of the best upcoming youth teams Asia. Iran are phenomenal in the U-16 category and have time and again made it past the group stages while both Vietnam and Indonesia are upcoming youth teams with a lot of potential,” Fernandes, recently told the AIFF.
Like most of the youth teams in Indian football, the U-16 boys had their fair share of exposure trips – a routine that has become the norm in the last few years. On their travels, the team faced some tough oppositions, and have mostly managed to come away with respectable results which augurs well for the young side.
The team began the year with 18 goals in three practice games in Dubai, before picking up wins against Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore U-17 sides. The Colts though were also handed defeats by USA (0-1, 0-1) and Norway (1-3), before they managed to register positive results against Jordan, Serbia, Tajikistan, DPR Korea, China and Iraq through the year.
“We wanted to ensure we get the best out of the tours, so we started with weaker oppositions, before we taking on stronger sides and playing competitions,” Fernandes points out indicating the team has benefitted from these tours and are better prepared than previous editions.
The side qualified for the AFC U-16 Championship as second in the group behind Iraq and ahead of Palestine and Nepal after having won the SAFF U-16 Championship in Nepal in 2017.
At the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship, Bibiano’s boys can qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup which will be held in Peru in 2019 if they make it to the semi-final as the top four are guaranteed qualification.
While that might just be a little overambitious given the quality of oppositions that India are going to face, the young team have the chance to give themselves a platform to take off from.
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