As the Indian football team prepares itself for the AFC U-16 Championship quarterfinal for the first time in 16 years, we have look at how eventful their campaign has been so far. Could they really go on to win the coveted trophy?
The AFC U-16 Championship has achieved a cult status when it comes reviewing some of the brightest young stars in the Asian footballing scene. Asia looks forward to escalating their presence in football, a sport mostly dominated by the Europeans and South Americans. The AFC U-16 Championship provides an ideal platform for the youngsters to display their talent before the entire continent.
Until 2002, the competition was held at a U-17 level, but with U-17 World Cup arriving the following year, it meant not all players who participated in the AFC Championship were eligible to play in the World Cup event. Thus, the competition was opened for players aged 16 years and below.
The competition, traditionally, has been dominated by the Koreans and teams from Middle-east. (In fact, the last two finals has seen two fierce rivals battle against one another – North Korea v South Korea in 2014, which North Korea won 2-1 and Iraq v Iran in 2016 (for which India were the hosts) with Iraq triumphing over Iran in a 4-3 penalty win.)
India, on the other hand, has struggled to make a mark in the tournament. They qualified only once before, in the 2002 U-17 Championship hosted by the United Arab Emirates. The group stage was a bittersweet experience for the Blue Colts. They started in a gauche way, as they suffered a 4-1 defeat against China. But they made a comeback with a 4-1 win of their own against Myanmar and a draw against the hosts, UAE. However, they managed to qualify for the knockout stage of the competition in spite of finishing in the 3rd rank in the group stage.
Consequently, the team’s luck ran out as they faced the eventual tournament winners, South Korea, and lost 3-1.
India in AFC U-16 Championship
But things feel different this time around. The country’s football scene has benefitted by many factors. ISL and it’ s efforts to develop talent at grass root level, increase in football’s popularity in general and the fact India hosted last year’s U-17 World Cup have immensely helped to identify and nurture the sport in the country.
After India qualified for this year’s competition, Kushal Das, AIFF General Secretary and Abhishek Yadav, Director of National Teams announced a fund injection of ₹ 9 Crores for the team’s preparations.-- Advertisement --
As a result of these positive initiatives, Indian football has reaped the fruits in a relatively quick manner. Indians sailed through the current AFC U-16 Championship with not much difficulty, but not with much ease as well.
Starting off on a winning note against Vietnam, as captain Vikram Pratap Singh scored the winning penalty. They say, in football, the numbers lie. And the modest winning margin of 1-0 masked India’s dominance in the match. Even from a neutral point of view, they should have scored at least 3 more goals.
Nervy, But Big Draws
Although the following two contests were struggling draws, they were big draws. Most noteworthy of the two was the draw against last edition’s runner-ups, Iran. The Men in Blue have not conceded a single goal so far, thus highlighting their strength in defending.
This might be against on display against Indonesia. Knowing that even a draw would be enough for them to proceed to the next round, Indians were content to sit back and not attack. At one point, had it not been for the wasteful Indonesians, they could have easily conceded a couple of goals.
Scoring goals have not been easy for them. Coach Bibiano Fernandes would be optimistic about his striker’s performance in the coming matches.
Future Prospects – The Korean Challenge
India’s next opponent is the cup favorites and toppers of the Group D, South Korea. This would be the teenagers most stringent competition till date.
The Koreans have been ruthless this season, scoring a staggering 10 goals from the first 2 matches and letting in 0 goals. India would mainly be wary of their star attack of Ahn Gi-hun, Jeong Sang-bin and main striker Choi Min-seo.
After defeating the defending champions Iraq 2-0, an in-form Korean team would be looking to take another step in securing the quarter-final tie, with an eye on winning the coveted trophy for the third time. No team has ever managed to achieve that feat.
As for the Indians, winning in this quarter-final tie would also be on the top of their minds. A victory here would automatically book their seat for the FIFA U-17 World Cup to be held in Peru next year.
Over the last 7 months, these youngsters have shown promise. Now, it is the time to show their capabilities and put India back on Asia’s footballing map.
India’s face South Korea on 1st November, at 18:15 IST in the AFC U-16 Championship quarterfinal.