Nicolai Adam loves getting out of Germany but when he does he takes the German trait of being meticulous with him. In charge of the national team for the under-17 football World Cup that India will host in 2017, Adam has put in place a plan, one so detailed that it can actually afford him to dream about taking his team to where no Indian side has ever gone.
In Kolkata for a friendly on Monday, Adam shared that dream with HT.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Was it the challenge of coaching a World Cup team that got you to what is not exactly a top football destination?
A: We (Adam and his coaching staff, one of whom is with him in India too) left Azerbaijan as the best post-Soviet country after Russia at that age group (under-19). I had a great time there but then, there was the fear of falling oil prices that paid my salary. That and the fact that my wife loves India; we have been on vacation here and in Sri Lanka and so when the offer came, we looked at each other and said “why not.”
Also, I work as a football developer. I am specialised in going to these developing countries. I love Germany but when I am there for four weeks, I think it is time to leave. As many problems as we face in India, there is also the chance of leaving a legacy.
Q: But leaving a legacy is different from the short-term target of doing well in the Asian U-16 finals and the U-17 World Cup.
A: I don’t see the things separately. My responsibility is to get the best possible result for my team. But I have also promised my boys the best possible football education they can get. If my plan till January 2017 works, they will get 20-25 international matches. After January, it is another story. In Germany, for this age-group, they get around 12 international games, the rest of the time they play in the league (youth Bundesliga). My job is to make this the best generation India has seen. The rest is for the responsible people at the federation. But we work together and this includes the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
Q: Was it a shock seeing how football is in terms of infrastructure etc after coming from Azerbaijan even though that is far from being a top-line football country?
A: No. Before Azerbaijan, I worked for three years in Africa. There aren’t too many things that can shock me (laughs)... I see it like this: Azerbaijan has 9 million people, India nearly 1.3 billion. Yes, there are risks here but also a huge chance to do something.
Q: And how much does the absence of scouting set you back in that ‘huge chance’?
A: Scouting is a huge part of the job for every national coach. But it should be much easier. There should be (youth) leagues in every state and from there you pick. Our main problem happens because there are no leagues here. So, scouting costs time and energy. But there is also the romance of finding a hidden talent. In Azerbaijan, we found a beautiful player literally from the streets. The available resources in India haven’t been tapped yet.
That also makes India the opposite of my country but I’ll tell you this: Germany lost in the 2015 U-17 World Cup quarter-finals to Mexico. Mexico had a wild, unpredictability in their style of play while we were almost over-organised. We need more individuality. The best strikers come from South America because they have that street-dog mentality. So, it’s not always about being organised but, yes, I would have preferred to have leagues in every Indian state.
Q: Soon after you joined, you went on a talent hunt trip across India. You are still doing that. How many boys have you changed from the pool you started with?
A: We now have 36 boys split into two groups. There were 54 when I joined. Of these 36, let’s say, 50% were selected after I joined. The rest were chosen by Mr Robert Baan (former AIFF technical director), Scott O’ Donnell (Baan’s successor) and Francisco de Costa (former head coach).
Q: How are you planning India’s preparations for the Asian under-16 final round, in Goa this September?
A: After we are done with these friendlies (Kolkata, Guwahati and New Delhi), we go to South Africa for one month (Feb. 4-March 6). There we play against top teams such as Mamelodi Sundowns, SuperSport, University of Pretoria and two matches against the South Africa U-16 national team.
The boys then get a break for their examinations and we assemble around April 10 in Goa. We play some more exhibition games, in Bangalore (Bengaluru), Odisha and Chandigarh. There will then be a 10-daay tournament in Goa with South Korea, Malaysia, (Brazilian club) Atletico Paranaense and us.
On May 28, we leave for Germany where with the help of the DFB (the German federation) we will have two camps, in Frankfurt and in Duisburg. With the help of Mr Baan, we will play some matches in Holland and against clubs in Duisberg, Cologne etc. We will also play against international sides. The plan is to play 18 games in three months, eight of which would be against national teams.
We return to Goa on August 22 and play matches against other countries most of whom would be arriving early for the tournament (September 15-October 2, 2016).
Q: That sounds like a plan. But even then, it is going to be a difficult tournament for India. What is your target in the Asian U-16s?
A: The top six teams now are Iran, Uzbekistan, the Koreas, Japan and Australia. My target is to make the semi-finals. That way we qualify for World Cup on merit. (The top four from the Asian meet qualify for the U-17 World Cup). The boys must know how to deal with pressure. Part of that pressure has been created by me but if we have to create a legacy we can’t say ‘let’s not lose by small margin.’ That is why we created the plan. We need those matches. Technically, tactically we have a good team but mental aspect is the key.
Let’s say, we clear the group stage and we play the quarter-final. There is that pressure to deal with; it’s an all-or-nothing game and the boys must learn to cope with that. In football, there is nothing such as a strong or weak team. You are either prepared or not. In 2013, the UAE team was not prepared for the U-17 World Cup it hosted.
Q: The AIFF was keen that the World Cup team plays in the Bundesliga for a season leading to the World Cup. Is that happening?
A: No, because the logistics couldn’t be worked out. But we will still try to be the test team for top Bundesliga sides every Wednesday when we are in Germany.
Q: That’s after the Asian meet. What’s the preparation plan for the U-17 World Cup in 2017?
A: If we don’t make the (Asian U-16) semis, we will still have one year to prepare. For now, we have planned till February 2017. After the Asian under-16, the boys get a six-week break and then we go to Brazil for one month. After that, we play an indoor 11-a-side tournament in St Petersburg where we meet top teams such as Korea, Japan etc. We are working on the plan between February and October (when the U-17 World Cup starts) because for now the focus is on the Asian under-16 meet.
Q: And what’s your target be in 2017 U-17 World Cup?
A: The level is scary. I have now seen three U-17 World Cups live. I have played football and I wouldn’t be good enough to be a U-17 World Cup ball boy now! And we have to face such teams. It’s like meeting (Wladimir) Klitschko, not his mother or uncle who has a belly. So, this plan is essentially the minimum for us to not get killed. I understand all this needs money and I am glad the SAI and the Government with us on this. We steamrolled teams in the Asian U-16 qualifiers last year but Bahrain, Lebanon (the teams India beat) are not the level we are looking at. We lost 0-3 to Iran and Iran weren’t even there in the 2015 World Cup!
But this is my dream: we need to survive the group stage. Getting beyond the first round will be a huge deal. We will need a good draw for that but I promise you this, the boys will fight, they will be difficult to beat. So, bring on Klitschko.
Q: Is the lack of size among Indians a problem?
A: You can’t do anything about it. We can put pressure on the ball. Before the opponents find the long ball, we can disturb the long ball. We can perfect our spot jump timings to beat the height factor. We need to find a style that fits our team. Football is about finding the best mix of technique, tactics and character and putting them together.
Q: How do you combat the problem of age-fudging?
A: As soon as we find a player we like, he is sent for an MRI to a doctor certified by the Asian federation in Goa. There are certain things we can’t control. My goalkeeper was born at home!