India’s Under-17 football team coach Luis Norton de Matos acknowledged the humongous task facing the hosts as they gear up to face three difficult opponents in their 2017 Fifa U-17 World Cup group. India are slotted with the United States, Colombia and Ghana in Group A of the tournament which is being held in India from October 6-28.
The Portuguese coach, along with two members of India’s Under-17 squad – striker Shubham Sarangi and midfielder Rahul KP – interacted with members of the media in New Delhi on Thursday. When asked point-blank if India could even draw a match in their group, De Matos stated that he would not have been in his position if the point was to draw the group-stage games.
“Even if the chances of winning are 5%, we are going to fight for that 5%,” he said. “After the draw was made, my two boys present at the draw – Sanjeev Stalin and Dheeraj Singh – came up to me and told me that, ‘We are going to win this, coach.’ This is the kind of attitude we want to see in this team.”
He added, “We are not going to play against extra-terrestrials. We are going to play against humans, and the boys know that they can make an impression.”
That said, De Matos did not undermine India’s opponents. “The USA has missed a World Cup at this level only once,” he said. “Ghana are twice World Champions at this level. Colombia, along with Brazil, are among the strongest South American teams present here.”
Keeping control of the ball is important for De Matos. The 63-year-old insisted that for his side to conserve energy and play efficiently against physical teams, the players have to keep the ball and pass it effectively. “Otherwise we’re running from one side to another,” he said. “Like a pianist needs the piano, a footballer needs the ball.”
The Indian team has been granted an exposure trip of Europe, where they faced Serbia, Macedonia and Benfica SL, among other clubs and national teams. India will next fly to Mexico to participate in a tournament featuring the Concacaf sides as well as Chile and Colombia in August. The team will also be playing international friendlies against Mali, Australia, and other countries.
“We have progressed a lot as a team in the last few months,” De Matos said. “We have produced good football, but it does not matter when there are no points for your performances. However, we showed in Europe that Indian players are at par with European players. Indian players can play like Portuguese players by holding the ball, keeping the ball and playing with the ball.”
India would look to play a counter-attacking style, he added. “We have spent hours on developing the passing technique and playing in close quarters. In the next few months we will be doing further good things,” the Portuguese said.
The tactician also spoke about the need to improve the mental state of the team. “I am the first psychologist of the team apart from the one that the All India Football Federation has provided us with. They come to me with their problems as I am not their chief but their leader. I am here to guide them, not give orders to them.”
The ignominious manner in which former coach Nicolai Adam was shunted out seems to have been forgotten with the appointment of De Matos. The team seems to have an increased base of players as De Matos has shown an intent to rotate his squad rather than stick with the same XI throughout. “Every coach has a different philosophy but he [De Matos] is a good coach and a good human being,” said the Delhi-based Sarangi.
The Kerala-born Rahul KP, a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo, said his parents couldn’t support his choice to play football full-time due to difficult circumstances. He has trained with his uncle, who he said was an inspiration. “[My uncle] trained me, brought me boots. Also training alone, it has given me that a fighting mentality. I now believe that I can do anything in football. The game is such.”
Sarangi said that he lied to his parents and skipped a lot of classes to play football, but he doesn’t regret it. “Sunil Chhetri is a huge inspiration to me. When I was little, he came to my school, spoke to me. He probably doesn’t remember me but I have fond memories of that.”
India will play a practice match in New Delhi before heading to Mexico for the four-nation tournament.