A stern test awaits head coach Floyd Pinto’s side as they get set to kick off their qualification campaign for the AFC U19 Championships 2020 – aiming to become the first Indian side to feature in the competition’s main draw since 2006. Drawn in Group F of the qualifiers, they will take on Uzbekistan in their first game on Wednesday (November 6, 2019), followed by hosts Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
All the matches will take place at the Prince Saud bin Jalawi Stadium in Al Khobar, with the opener against Uzbekistan scheduled to kick-off at 5.35 PM IST (3.05 PM local time).
The Indian side will enter the qualifiers high on confidence after two strong showings in Vanuatu and Nepal, where the team finished first in both the OFC Youth Development Tournament and the SAFF U18 Championship respectively. Ahead of the team’s opening clash, Floyd spoke to www.the-aiff.com in a detailed chat, where he discussed the team’s preparation, the mood in the camp and the “blend” of youth and experience in his side, among other things. EXCERPTS:
How has the preparation and acclimatization been in Saudi Arabia? How are the players gearing up for the challenge?
The preparations have been really smooth and all the players are ready for the action to begin. We wanted to come here a few days in advance and get a few training sessions in before the tournament starts. It helps because the weather here is really hot and considering that two of our matches kick off at 3 pm in the afternoon, it’s important that the boys get used to playing in the extreme conditions. I’m happy with the way they have progressed and confident ahead of our first game against Uzbekistan.
On paper, it is a challenging group. What is your assessment of the opposition teams and what would be the gameplan while approaching these games?
It’s a tough group to be in and all three teams are of high calibre. Saudi Arabia are the defending champions from 2018 and Uzbekistan also have a good record at youth level. Afghanistan too did well in the recent CAFA (Central Asian Football Association) Junior Championship.
It’s going to be a good test for the boys. With our wins in Vanuatu and Nepal, we have built up great momentum and it’s now time to make use of it. For us, our plan is to take it one game at a time and make the most of the chances we get in the matches. I’m certain the players will give their all on the pitch and hopefully, we can get the results we need.
How big a boost was winning the SAFF U18 title, given that the final was a hard-fought one? How has it impacted the players?
Winning the SAFF title, especially given the fact it was our maiden one, was a huge boost for the players. The way the team fought in the final was admirable and it has really boosted the confidence level in the team. In our training sessions, we have looked to maintain the same levels of energy and focus, so that we can carry it into the AFC qualifiers as well.
From Turkey to Vanuatu to Nepal – you have faced opposition from West Asia, Oceania and South Asia. How has it benefitted the team for its preparation and how the players play on the pitch?
For the past few years, we have been very adamant that the team has to play competitive international matches. Since the end of the Hero I-League, we have gone up against a variety of teams in Russia, Turkey, Vanuatu and Nepal. We have faced a lot of different oppositions, all of whom have different philosophies, technical and physical abilities.
This has certainly given the players a lot of confidence on how to deal with different situations during matches. The matches we played in Turkey against Oman along with the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan in Russia are the ones we are now looking at – in order to see where we can improve and what we can expect from our opponents in Group F in the AFC U19 qualifiers.
I would like to thank the AIFF, Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Govt of Odisha for their continuous support us with these exposure tours, which have helped us immensely in our preparation for these Qualifiers.
There are players such as Prabshukhan Gill, Ninthoinganba Meetei, Jitendra Singh etc in the team – who have been key members of your Indian Arrows team for the last two years and whom you have seen grow from close quarters. What do you make of their development and how are they taking to the leadership roles in this group of players?
There are quite a few players in this batch, who were part of the Indian team in the FIFA U17 World Cup in 2017 and then the Indian Arrows. As a result, there is a great bonding and feeling of togetherness within the boys. The experience that these boys have gained training together in the last few years has made them tough – both physically and mentally.
We have a lot of leaders in the team all over the pitch and that we will be vital for us when we take on Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in this crucial set of games. These boys now know the level they need to play at and the focus that they need to maintain. Along with the staff, they have a great role to play as well in keeping the rest of the team focused and drilling home the importance of these qualifiers. It makes me really happy as a coach to see them lead by example and act as role models on the pitch.
The team also has many names from the Indian team that took part in the AFC U16 Championship last year. How have they assimilated into the squad and what qualities do they bring to the team?
Yes, there are multiple players from Bibiano’s (U16 coach Bibiano Fernandes) team that did so well in the AFC U16 Championship and reached the quarterfinals. These boys have been in the AIFF Academy system for quite a few years now and a lot of hard work and time has gone into nurturing these boys. As the U19 coach, it’s easier for me as they already have the required knowledge and understanding, which has given us a great blend of experience and quality in the team.
The experience they gained of playing in the AFC U16 Championship is invaluable and a great addition to the team. Technically, they are very good and very strong physically.
They are here on merit and not just to make up the numbers. They add to the firepower we have already and have contributed immensely in the success that we have had in recent tournaments. They will definitely have a major role to play in these upcoming matches as well.
The following players will represent India at the AFC U19 Championships 2020 Qualifiers:
GOALKEEPERS: Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, Lalbiakhlua Jongte, Niraj Kumar
DEFENDERS: Muhammed Rafi, Jitendra Singh, Akash Mishra, Narender, Bikash Yumnam, Thoiba Singh Moirangthem, Hormipam Ruivah, Sumit Rathi
MIDFIELDERS: Vikram Partap Singh, Ninthoinganba Meetei, Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Givson Singh Moirangthem, Ricky John Shabong, Ravi Bahadur Rana, Lalrampana Pautu, Muhammed Basith Parathodi
FORWARDS: Aman Chetri, Manvir Singh, Gurkirat Singh
HEAD COACH: Floyd Pinto