MADGAON : It’s not easy being in Nicolai Adam’s shoes. He came to India to take up one of the most thankless jobs in world football — that of creating a team capable of hanging with the world’s best in 30 months. For the first year-and-half, he battled against the harsh realities of Indian football, travelling to every nook and corner looking for players. For the next twelve months, he will be up against the almost arrogant public expectation, that three years of investing in 30 kids somehow entitles us to a place among the elite.
The road so far has not been easy for Nicolai and his team, but it sure has been interesting. The German sat down with Express for an extensive look at the process that shaped India’s first ever world cup team.
What was your reaction when you were first approached with the India job?
It was very unspectacular. I was still very busy with the Azerbaijan U-19s. On the day I was contacted, I was in Macedonia with the team for an international match. I really got involved with idea when I visited India in January 2014. Then I really thought about the whole project and the idea of coaching the U-17 World Cup team.
You had to build up a pool of players from scratch. How tough was that?
When we first came, the assistant coach and me, the first thing we had to do was build up a staff. That process took months ending finally with Abhishek (Yadav) coming on board as COO. We are planning to make the staff a bit bigger with some experts from Germany. The second step was to get the team together. We had an academy in Goa and given the resources available, it was well-run. So it was not that I started at zero. After we analysed the situation in Goa, we were on the hunt for new players.
We are still on the hunt for new players. When I came to India, I knew it was going to be nothing like Germany. Even Azerbaijan is developing football country, but India is a whole other challenge. The size alone is both an advantage and a disadvantage. In Germany, you pick from the specific age-group league. In India, that did not exist. Now there is a U-15 league, but it is a bit too late for my purpose. So we had to go out there, organise trials, watch a lot of football and pick the best ones we found.
You took the job with 30 months left for the World Cup. Do you wish you had signed up a lot earlier?
That would mean I would have missed beautiful and successful times in Azerbaijan. So from that perspective, no. But it would have been helpful to have more time to fulfil the task (with India U-s17).
You mentioned you’re still looking for players. Isn’t the idea, that you can find players better than the current group who’ve been training and going on exposure tours for two years, a bit disturbing?
I honestly think it is very difficult now to make it into that squad. You need talent. But why should we not at least consider the chance that there may be a player who is very good? We have nothing to lose.
Have you thought about what these kids need after the U-17 World Cup?
These kids need to continue the work that we have started. When the World Cup is finally over, those kids will still not be professional footballers. We invested so much time, energy and money into these kids. Let us continue the good work. This should not only be about the World Cup. We need to create a group of highly skilled Indian footballers who can compete with the best.
You see someone like Gurpreet Sandhu improving massively after training abroad. Do you think that is a path these kids can take?
I honestly think it’s too early to say that. I’m happy for every player who is good enough and has the potential to go abroad. But it is a step by step process. U-17 is too early to predict if a player will make it as a professional. First you have to make it as a professional in your home league before you can make it as a professional abroad.
Have you thought about staying in India beyond the U-17 World Cup?
I have two kids and a wife. I have talked about this with them and we could imagine staying longer in India. But now the focus is on what we have to do for the World Cup. The rest will basically fall into place. But it’s definitely an option for us. We never say never to anything.
When is that point when you can look back and say ‘I’ve done my job’? Is it a good performance in the U-17 World Cup or is it if some of these kids make it as senior professionals?
It has happened to me a couple of times in the past month, that players from my former team Azerbaijan sent me messages through my assistant. I cannot even read the language — it’s half Russian, half Azeri. But they say ‘hey coach, thank you!’ or ‘we miss you’ or ‘we got to where we are because of you’. Two of their top talents are now playing in Europe. That makes me happy. But even the players who don’t make it, if they say ‘coach, you did a good job and thank you’, that is worth more than any money you can receive.
Feb 5, 2015: AIFF announce appointment of Nicolai Adam as head coach of the Indian U-17 national team.
April 1, 2015: Takes charge.
Under Nicolai, the U-17 squad have participated in the 2015 SAFF U-16 Championship, 2016 AFC U-16 Championship qualification, 2016 AIFF Youth Cup as well as four international friendlies. The team is currently taking part in the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship.