First things first. The FIFA Rankings point out that Oman are at 81 while India are at 104 – a difference of 23 spots between the two teams.
The team sheet prior to the International Friendly against Oman match pointed out that there were six debutants in India’s starting line-up — a pointer to Indian Football’s changing philosophy to move forward together.
As the match progressed, four new debutants came in, making it 10 overall – a rarity in International Football, and surpassing India’s previous record of fielding seven debutants against Nepal in Guwahati in 2015.
For the record, the average age of all the 10 debutants was 23, and five of them have been part of the AIFF developmental set-up sometime or the other. Also to reiterate, the average age in the current squad is a little above 24.
The changing paradigm of International Football will always suggest that teams are getting younger day by day. The current squad of the Blue Tigers is a conglomeration of experience and youth, perhaps one of the most perfect balances in recent times.
Youth football is always defined by the ability to address the transition phase of a player’s life, and that’s where the young guns have been lucky. If you look at the U-17 World Cup squad members, the boys never had to rethink twice about their future, as a smooth transition was facilitated for them – first with the Indian Arrows, and subsequently the U-19 National Team.
Game time was what defined their stint with the Arrows. The boys, backed by the International exposure tours, grew in confidence while playing against professional players in the Hero I-League. Indian Football benefitted, making them more confident and motivated to make a mark for themselves in the Hero Indian Super League. Now, the International arena beckons and the sky is the limit.
The biggest challenge in the process stays the patience, not just from the governing body, but most importantly the fans, and support from all stakeholders.
It’s absolutely impossible to miss the silent revolution going on at the U-16 level, wherein the two consecutive batches who qualified directly for the AFC U-16 Finals (in 2018 and in 2020 which eventually got cancelled owing to the pandemic) wait in the wings to challenge the current debutants possibly in a year or two, or maybe who knows, maybe even earlier.
That’s the beauty of the sport and that’s the pipeline which needs to be built in the process to structure an aspiring nation into the footballing nation we all aspire to be.
Credit doesn’t lie with the governing body alone. The support from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports for all of those exposure tours – both men’s and women’s and Odisha Sports’ support and cooperation has redefined the concept of standing by a team sport. It’s a long path, and everyone needs to walk hand-in-hand, the results of which are already making people take note.
(Nilanjan Datta / AIFF Media)