Goalless and soulless, a reality check for India U-19 in Saudi Arabia
The India under-19 men’s national football team recently returned from Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, after losing all three games at the AFC U-19 Championship qualifiers – against Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan – and failing to score a single goal.
India started with a 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan before going down 4-0 and 3-0 to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, respectively.
“Afganistan win 3-0, we lost all the three matches in #afcu19championship. We can’t say our group was tough. Our preparation was better than any time in history of #IndianFootball. Not an encouraging outing for #U19 national team. We have to do an honest postmortem,” tweeted Shaji Prabhakaran, Football Delhi president and former FIFA development officer for south and central Asia.
To prepare for this competition, India had travelled to Croatia, Serbia, Russia, Turkey and Vanuatu in a series of exposure tours between September, 2018, and August, 2019. They also won the six-team South Asian U-19 Championship last September.
Four of the 22-member squad – Amarjit Singh, Jitendra Singh, Ninthoinganba Meetei and Prabhsukhan Gill – had played at the 2017 U-17 World Cup which India hosted. Amarjit, who didn’t eventually play a game in the qualifiers due to an injury, and another member of the squad, Narender Gahlot, have played for the senior national team as well. The squad’s core was formed from the team that reached the quarter-finals of the AFC U-16 Championship last year. That team had also been sent to various countries on exposure tours. All such tours are funded by the Sports Authority of India (SAI). Officials of SAI did not respond to requests for a comment.
Many of the current squad have experience in top-flight football, mainly through the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) developmental team in the I-League – Indian Arrows.
“We are disappointed with the results,” said Abhishek Yadav, former India international and AIFF’s director of national teams. “We have done well at the U-16 level but the U-19 category is a challenge. We will definitely be reviewing the performance.”
In football, the buck stops with the coach; in this case, head coach Floyd Pinto. But how much is the Mumbaikar responsible? Or is focus on the coach a digression from a more substantive conversation?
Last season, Pinto led Arrows --- one of the two teams in the league with no foreign players --- to an eighth-place finish in the I-League, three points above 2017-18 champions Minerva Punjab and four ahead of reigning Durand Cup champions Gokulam Kerala. Pinto was not available for a comment for this story.
This is also the seventh straight time that India have failed to qualify for the biennial Asian event. In the two editions prior to that, India had played the final round as hosts (2006) and, in 2004, as replacement for Tukmenistan who had withdrawn.
The strength of the opposition in a tournament where teams change in every two-year cycle too can put in perspective India’s showing. Uzbekistan had failed to qualify for the last AFC U-19 Championship but in the five editions prior, they reached the quarter-finals twice, semi-finals twice and the final once. Saudi Arabia are the defending champions and were runners-up in 2016. In the qualifiers for the last edition, shortly after the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, India lost 5-0 to them.
The loss to Afghanistan did raise eyebrows. But the last time India had faced Afghanistan at this stage, in 2015, they lost 2-0. Then too, India had finished last in the group without scoring a goal.
Scoring was a challenge when India reached the quarters of the AFC U-16 Championship in 2018 as well. Their only goal in four games came from a penalty in the 1-0 win over Vietnam, who finished bottom of the group. Coach Bibiano Fernandes’ tactical nous took India to the quarter-finals after goalless draws in the next two group games before falling to South Korea.
India U-20s’ win against their Argentine counterparts in an invitational tournament last year was hailed as a fresh dawn ignoring the tournament’s non-competitive status and that developed football countries don’t follow dedicated national youth team programs like India because most of their top teenagers are involved in domestic leagues, often with youth or reserve teams.
Domestic youth leagues organised by the AIFF provide for a handful of games and the situation is worse in most states. When Minerva Punjab won the Elite League, the country’s highest youth league, last season, they played six games in the zonal round, four in the play-off round and six in the final round. Sixteen games --- the maximum -- were what they and runners-up Pune City got.
Lack of a strong domestic structure leads to a reduced pool of quality players. With even the senior football calendar – the Indian Super League and the I-League – running for barely four months, opportunities for young players are further reduced.
Syed Abdul Rahim, who coached India to Asian Games gold medals in 1951 and 1962, had termed as myopic the idea of sending footballers abroad to train. “Any short-term scheme for training of the present footballers or any scheme to send footballers to foreign countries for training will do no permanent good to the game,” Indian Express quoted him as saying in 1955. Sixty-four years on, the trend of foreign tours for a group of players instead of organic, structured growth domestically, is growing.