CHENNAI: JUST over a year ago, Bibiano Fernandes was picking up the pieces of a brave yet heartbreaking Asian Championships campaign. His India U-16 side had progressed into the knockout stages ahead of names like Iran and had come within a match of qualifying for the U-17 World Cup. However, in the quarters, they had run into South Korea and had lost by a solitary goal — the only goal they conceded in the entire tournament.
The question in Bibiano’s head though was about the future than the immediate past. How can we do one better next time? If the manner in which the current U-15 side qualified for the U-16 Asian Championships next year is any indication, the coach might just have found his answers.
While they had squeaked through the qualifying phase last time, the progression of India’s young guns to the continental event, in Uzbekistan last week, was emphatic. They thrashed Turkmenistan and Bahrain by five goals each and then held hosts Uzbekistan to a 1-1 draw, topping the group on goal difference. And it all started that night in Kuala Lumpur when Bibiano was able to look past the crushing disappointment, into the future. “We reached the quarters last time and we started from there,” he says. “We learnt a lot from that experience and we knew exactly what we needed. We looked for the kind of players we knew we needed.”
To get those players, a scouting process, that Bibiano estimates involved more than 10,000 kids, was initiated. “When the Subroto Cup was happening, there were scouts watching matches at each of the centres,” the former international says. “And then, when they came to New Delhi to play in the main tournament, me and my staff saw all the matches personally.” That was where they stumbled upon Sridarth Nongmeikapam, who scored five goals in three matches at the qualifiers.
Open trials were held in almost all of Indian football’s nerve centres. By February, Bibiano began to have a rough idea of what his team was going to be like as shortlisted players began to be called up for a final look. Scouting, though, continued over to the next couple of months, as the Junior League started. “In April, we went to Italy for an exposure tour where we faced the likes of Mexico, USA, Slovenia, Macedonia and Qatar,” he says. That was followed by trips to Thailand and Turkey, the latter of which saw Bibiano’s boys take on Turkish club Fenerbahce’s youth side.
By the time, the SAFF U–15 Championship came around in August, the team looked settled and the attack, lethal. That they would win that title was a foregone conclusion but it was the manner in which they triumphed that caught eyeballs. The five games they played saw them score an astonishing 28 goals, including seven in the final against Nepal. Not a single goal was let in!
Now that a free-scoring attack appears to have been added to the rock-solid defence that was the hallmark of Bibiano’s previous Asian Championship side, can India really qualify for a U-17 World Cup for the first time ever? “Looking at the results right now, there is hope that we can qualify,” Bibiano says. “We have come out as champions of a tough group. Provided that we work hard, we should be able to better last edition’s results.”