While modern football allows for a greater chance of relatively unknown, unheralded youngsters lighting up the professional game, the value of a youth tournament at the continental level remains undiminished. Great performances at a youth tournament can speed up a player’s footballing development. Great performances by the team can go on to create far more serious ripples in the ecosystem of the game within the country. Sometimes, it can revolutionise a country’s football entirely.
In 1987, when an unfancied Yugoslavia team travelled to Chile for the FIFA World Youth Championships, few held much hope. They were expected to fill up the numbers. As it was though, they romped to the title, beating the hosts, the defending champions Brazil, as well as three of the four semi-finalists over the course of the tournament. It proved to be a spark for future success.
That brilliant team had the likes of Robert Jarni, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker and Indian Men’s National Team head coach Igor Stimac, players who went on to become mainstays of the Croatia team that reached the semi-finals of the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
India’s head coach scored two vital goals for his team in the tournament, the first in the opener against hosts Chile (to give his team the lead) and the second, the opening goal of the semi-finals against East Germany. “It takes courage, faith, character, unity, and above all quality,” Stimac says, when asked what it takes to win a title at the age group level.
With the Federation putting more focus than before on age-group teams, talent development and grassroot football, Stimac believes these tournaments are a great assessing point for everyone involved. “Tournaments are a regular part of development,” he said. “This is where we find out where the team stands with our work, and also how far behind we are in comparison to the best teams in the competition and what needs to be improved to get there.”
At the AFC U-17 Asian Cup in Thailand, India, are in Group D, slotted alongside continental heavyweights Japan and new contenders Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The games will be a litmus test in many ways, and for the new Blue Colts batch, a great way to test themselves against the elite of their age.
Having worked with many players from previous batches of the India U-17 Team and also given many their debut in the tournament, Stimac highlights that the grind they go through at the age-group level pays dividends later. “Their brains are capable of making quicker and better decisions on the pitch because of the process they’ve been through,” he says. Stimac credited India U-17 head coach Bibiano Fernandes for having spent a lot of time with the youngsters and helping develop their game. “The real test to see the quality of his work is coming now,” he said.
As far as the actual tournament itself is concerned, Stimac believes a strong start and result in the opening game will not just set the tone but also boost morale and confidence within the side. “The boys need to believe in themselves and remember that they are actually enjoying a privilege, that of representing the country,” he said. “Playing friendlies is a different from playing a tournament. I hope they will enjoy the game because there is nothing to be afraid of. At their level in Asia, the differences between teams are far less than at the senior level. So we believe in them.”
Stimac also said that he will be keeping a keen eye on proceedings in Thailand and hoped for standout performances from players, one which could even end up with “some of them with a senior team very soon”.
Report- Pratyusha Mukherjee