For India's U-17s, 'Arrows' route is way ahead
The Indian team, which won praise for its performance at the U-17 World Cup, its maiden showing in any FIFA event, have their immediate plans chalked out -- they will start with participation in the AFC U-19 Championship qualifiers in the first week of November. The best U-17 players will then team up with some of the best U-19 players and play in the I-League as a separate club. Remuneration for their participation will be taken care of by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), according to AIFF president Praful Patel, who made the announcement at a press conference in Kolkata on Thursday.
Although there is some clarity about their immediate plans, the debate is over their future, and that of youth football in India.
Thirteen of the 21 who played in the World Cup are part of coach Luis Norton de Matos' squad for the 2018 AFC U-19 Championship qualifiers in Saudi Arabia, and are already in the middle-east, on their way to Dammam. India will play hosts Saudi Arabia on November 4, and then Yemen and Turkmenistan on November 6 and 8, respectively.
Top spot in their qualifying group guarantees them a place at next year's AFC U-19 Championship in Indonesia, while even second place could see them through as one of five best runners-up out of 10 groups. The U-17 regulars like goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh, full-backs Sanjeev Stalin and Boris Singh, and midfielders Amarjit Singh, Suresh Singh and Jeakson Singh, India's only goal-scorer at a FIFA event, will all be in action with this team.
The challenge now will be to plot their medium-term future. The option announced by Patel, reviving a model first tried in 2010, is what was then called the "Arrows" route -- members of the Under-17 team competing as one of 10 teams in the I-League. The Arrows then comprised various clubs' U-19 and U-23 players, who were not getting enough game time in the league, and played in the country's top division, immune from relegation. This gave a platform to players like India's goalkeeper Gurpreet Sandhu and striker Jeje Lalpekhlua, but was shut down in 2013 due to lack of sponsorship funds.
"We started with the process of identifying the right kind of talent three or four years back, when most of these boys were 14 years of age," said Henry Menezes, former India international and deputy chairman of the AIFF technical committee. "Now we have three teams -- U-16, U-17 and U-19. The U-17 team just played the World Cup and the U-16 team has been doing well in Asia [India qualified for the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship, unbeaten in a group comprising Iraq, Palestine and Nepal]. Now if you separate the best players from these three categories, they will probably warm the bench of a club. Instead, if they are kept together as a club, we can keep together the best players from U-19 and U-17 and perhaps a couple from U-16 as well," Menezes told ESPN.
"If you look at this team, if they play 18 matches in the I-League and then all their exposure tours, then we are looking at a minimum of 30 games for them going into the U-19 qualifiers."
The ultimate goal, as everybody associated with Indian football might agree, would be to finish in the top four of the AFC U-19 Championship, and gain entry into the 2019 U-20 World Cup, a tournament India has bid to host but would nonetheless want to gain rightful entry to. It is an ambitious plan that could pave the way for long-term gains for the sport.
India's performances at the U-17 World Cup were respectable, if not good. They opened with a 3-0 defeat at the hands of U.S., before running Colombia close in a 2-1 loss and losing 4-0 to Ghana. "The team has shown that it is possible to play at this level, but it was also (due to) very specific preparation (and) with the support of the home crowd. (India played) with a very specific investment by the SAI (Sports Authority of India) and the AIFF. The big challenge will be how you will make this sustainable for the long term," said FIFA technical director Steven Martens.
Not everybody is convinced about this being the best pathway for the team, though. Steve Darby, former Laos national coach and former coach of Indian Super League (ISL) team Mumbai City FC, calls this situation "artificial". "I am not a fan of this as I feel players learn so much from older pros and also the reality of playing for your wages. The only thing is that it guarantees players game time, which is important, but if this is the case the whole squad must get game time. I believe they should be loaned out to ISL teams where they will get a quality environment," he said.
"There have been countries which have played their age-group teams in the top league. But I don't think it is the right approach," said Ajax Coaching Academy manager Corne Groenendijk. "It is better than sending them individually to clubs where they don't get a chance to play together, but I see it as a medicine to make someone better when he could have been healthy in the first place. As a medicine I would say it is a good choice, but not so much as a health policy."
Patel also spoke of setting up a National Centre of Excellence on Thursday, though he admitted the "where" and "how" of the plan is yet to be finalised. He said he would speak to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who is in Kolkata for a FIFA Executive Committee meeting on October 27, to give any kind of support he could provide to the centre, which Patel says would then become the home for the senior and junior teams of both men's and women's football in India. He expressed a desire to have the centre up and running inside two years.