NEW DELHI: There may only be a couple more of them left before the India U-17 team walks out in their World Cup opener, but their training session on Tuesday looked exactly what it was — a bunch of kids having a kickabout. There were the jokes and smiles, mishits and stepovers and all sorts of ridiculous hairstyles.
But make no mistake about the kind of pressure these boys are under. In a few days, they will be the first ever Indian footballers to walk out in a FIFA World Cup. Yes, India is ranked 100th in the world and the best case scenario for these boys are a point or two, three honourable defeats being a perfectly acceptable outcome, given the gulf in quality between India and most of the footballing world.
But when you have an event as hyped as the World Cup in your own backyard, expectations are bound to soar. A number of experts have already allowed themselves to imagine a possible route to the knockouts. There have even been reports predicting a run to the later stages of the tournament.
These expectations have been fostered by the Indian federation hyping a few of the results that the boys have had on tour, including that win over ‘Italy’ and a draw with Serbia. But the federation, in their defence, has also taken every step to help the boys deal with the expectations and the almost-inevitable large-scale disappointment that will follow when they crash out early.
The media and commercial commitments have been kept to a minimum to ensure that the boys don’t get caught up in the hype and take their eyes off the ball. But perhaps the most significant step in this regard is the appointment of a mental conditioning coach — the first of its kind in Indian football. Not even the seniors have had this luxury.
Swaroop Savanur has been with the team since February. His is one of the most delicate jobs of its kind in Indian sports, managing the psyche of teenagers who are being put under the unprecedented spotlight.
“The players not only have to deal with the baggage that comes with experience on the field, but also factors like his genetics, the kind of environment he grew up under. I can help them deal with all this,” he says.
“Difference between them and senior players is that at this age, the emotions are higher. The hormones are different. But at the end of the day, it’s about demystifying mental conditioning to them. After that, it becomes like technical or physical training.”
Swaroop has worked with international athletes in other sports before, but cannot stress enough, the uniqueness of this one.
“First of all, you have to gain the trust of these players. So I implement a variety of sessions — some videos, some fun games, some humour,” he says. “With these kids, making them laugh is not the hardest. They are a very fun loving bunch.”