Discussing the future of Indian football feels slightly absurd considering the uncertainty over the next few months owing to the coronavirus pandemic. But when the sport does resume, a bunch of exciting youngsters, all under the age of 20, are likely to dominate the domestic scene — a reward for the development work put in by Floyd Pinto over the last few years in the Indian National Youth team setup.
This group of talented teenagers that is being talked about is a part of the very group that represented India at its first ever FIFA World Cup back in 2017. A vital cog in All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) developmental plan for over two years, Pinto has worked closely with all the boys from that batch and helped several of them make a smooth transition from junior to senior.
Two of them, Amarjit Singh Kiyam and Narender Gahlot made the jump to the national team while they were still with the U-19 team, plying their trade in the I-League under Pinto. Others like Nongdamba Naorem, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Lalengmawia, Jaekson Singh, Ninthoingamba etc. have also made a mark at senior level in the recently concluded season. How exactly did Pinto help in their development as a professional footballer?
"Every coach in the national youth team has to play his part as players rise through the youth team ranks,” the 33-year-old coach tells this reporter when asked. “All of us have one aim, and that is to make sure that these footballers are ready to play professional football in the domestic circuit and eventually, if they can step up to the senior national team, it is a big sense achievement for all of us youth coaches.”
It is big, isn’t it? For an individual to get directly promoted to the senior national team while still being in the U-19 setup, it takes more than talent and dedication. For the player to be ready for top-level football, every coach and support staff in the Indian Arrows backroom have to play an important part. Otherwise, there is every chance that the junior player will get lost while trying to find his way.
Source: Facebook/Floyd Pinto
For instance, look at Komal Thatal, arguably, that U-17 World Cup squad’s biggest star. Hailed as the Indian Neymar, the boy with the golden mane and silky feet, has so far failed to live up to the promise, the hype that was created initially. After the World Cup, he stepped away from the national team's setup and decided to join Indian Super League (ISL) outfit ATK FC but his career never quite took off. From one of the most coveted youngsters in the country to yet another frustrated talent not getting an opportunity to shine, Thatal’s transformation has been far from dazzling.
"It's not always about if the boys are good enough, because they are. It's about making the right decision,” Pinto explains. “Sometimes, you may not play regularly in a season, but training with professionals helps you gain a lot of experience. And then, in the second season, you get a chance to prove yourself. You may give your best and not getting any game time, it's survival of the fittest, it's cruel, it's competitive, that's professional football for you.”
There are different pathways to professional football, according to the coach. “Amarjit was capped at senior level even before playing for his club side. Suresh, Jaekson, Ninthoi & Lalengmawia had to be patient before getting gametime & they haven't looked back since. Then there is Nongdamba, who went out on loan in search of gametime & ended up with an Ileague Winners medal. Hopefully, the rest can assess where they stand in their respective teams and take the right decision towards playing on a regular basis & growing as footballers."
In November last year, following the U-19 team’s disappointing performance at the AFC qualification, Pinto had parted ways with the team. However, until last month, he was working for the AIFF’s youth setup, helping them scout talents for the next batch of kids. He was at the Khelo India Games, he visited Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and other places in search of young prospects for the next batch of Indian footballers.
“Having left the Indian Arrows setup, I spent time scouting for players for various age group teams in the AIFF setup. Now having completed my tenure at AIFF, I have had time to reflect & contemplate my next move. I am looking forward to coaching again. I have learnt a lot while coaching the U-19 national team, Indian Arrows in the I League dealing with the best talents in the country and helping them develop into professional players. I would like to use that experience at club level,” Pinto says when asked about his future plans.
Pinto celebrates with the Arrows squad at the end of the 2018-19 season (Source: Facebook / Floyd Pinto)
“Many clubs be it in the ISL or I League are beginning to stabilize. Developing a structure which can help a club grow organically & become self sustainable is vital in today's football ecosystem. I want to stay in professional football, I like the rush, the daily training, the matchdays, being on the field... so, I am looking forward to seeing what's out there and eventually I will make my decision on where to go next,” he adds.
The lockdown has its pros and cons. On one hand, as a coach, it is difficult to stay off the field but on the other, with everyone staying at home, you can interact with coaches from all over the world and share knowledge via webinars.
"As a coach, I would rather be on the field than off it. But I'm coping with it under the circumstances. There are webinars going on now, and the one big advantage is that you get to interact with a lot of other coaches, share knowledge & learn. A few days back we had a session with head coach Igor Stimac. That was pretty interesting because he shared his thoughts about long & short term plans for Indian football, the national team's philosophy and I am looking forward to more such sessions in the coming days," Pinto says.
It’s been a while since we saw an Indian at the helm of a top club or even the national team. But with the ISL’s recent announcement, that any coach with an AFC Pro Licence will be eligible to take charge, the scenario could change, at least Pinto believes it will.
“Within a few years, we will definitely see an Indian coach at the helm. We have Indian coaches winning the I-League, Derrick Pereira, Armando Colaco, Sanjoy Sen & Khalid Jamil, Clifford Miranda & Pradhyum Reddy taking over as Interim Head coach's was an encouraging sign.
"It's upto us to raise our level of professionalism, work ethic, knowledge & take up the responsibility to perform & as coaches we should continue to learn, adapt & raise the bar,” Pinto signs off.