The coach of the Indian Under-16 men’s team is often described as a shy man and an introvert. He prefers to keep away from the limelight and happy to let his players do the talking on the pitch. Bibiano Fernandes agrees with this assessment made by his peers.

“They’re right,” he said. “I am a very shy guy by nature. I don’t like the spotlight. I try to avoid it. Even as a player, I was like this. I prefer to stand at the back.”

The 41-year-old former India international, who took over the U16 team in 2016, will face the biggest test of his career in Malaysia, where his team will aim to upset the odds at the AFC Asian U-16 Championships in September.

Stiff competition

A top-four finish at the AFC Championships could mean a direct entry to the U-17 World Championships next year. That, however, is easier said than done, as India have been clubbed with Asian powerhouses Iran, a rapidly improving Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Bibiano concurs that it will be tough but has full faith in the process. “It’s difficult to say what will happen in Malaysia,” he said. Iran were the runners-up in the last edition, Vietnam have taken rapid strides in the last few years, and with Indonesia you never know what kind of team you’re going to get. It’s a process. We’ll take it one game at a time.”

The former Sporting Clube de Goa midfielder is one among a handful of Indian coaches coming through the system, and among the few to look out for. Fernandes, along with Dempo’s Samir Naik; Floyd Pinto, the assistant to Luis Norton de Matos at the Indian Arrows; and Pune City’s assistant coach Pradyum Reddy; are among the next generation of Indian coaches, quietly but steadily rising through the ranks.

Richard Hood, AIFF’s head of Youth Development, has words of praise for the U-16 head coach: “Bibiano has been an invaluable addition to the junior national team coaching staff. [He] has gathered a lot of practical experience during the time there was a B team for the U17 World Cup squad and it was a unanimous decision that he takes charge of the U16/17 team in the existing AFC/Fifa cycle that will unfold in a few months time.”

Meticulous and organised

For India’s first-ever World Cup team, Nicolai Adam was initially in charge of the Under-17’s while Fernandes was in charge of the ‘B’ team, filled with hopefuls and the stand-bys. Having secured his coaching ‘A’ license in Bhopal, he was part of the first scouting process for the current team in 2016 and was given full charge of the side.

Although India lost to Iran in the last edition of the AFC U-16 championships held in Goa, Fernandes backs his players to the hilt. “I don’t have to tell my players anything to motivate,” he said. “This is a very hungry bunch, they want to win, to give it their 120% out there. They believe in themselves and they have the ability to get out of the group stages.”

The team beat the U-16 teams of Al-Ahly and Smouha in Egypt in 2017, followed by a successful SAFF U-16 campaign. The AFC qualification campaign, saw them pitted against Palestine, Iraq and hosts Iraq. India came through that group unbeaten to qualify for Malaysia.

Their biggest triumph came at a four-nation tournament in Serbia where they emerged champions. “We drew against Serbia, but defeated Jordan and Tajikistan. That gave the boys a lot of confidence.” In their final match, the team responded to their coach’s call to be more clinical by scoring four against Tajikistan, with three coming in the first 10 minutes.

Fernandes is very meticulous when it comes to preparation and acclimatisation for a major tournament. For the qualifiers, he had no problems as the team had already played the SAFF Cup in Nepal. He hoped to do the same and play some games in Malaysia before the actual tournament, so that his team would not be caught unaware of the conditions.

Bibiano Fernandes (Image courtesy: AIFF)
Bibiano Fernandes (Image courtesy: AIFF)

Regular game-time

“Bibiano has them playing 90 minutes once a week or twice,” said Indian Arrows assistant Floyd Pinto. “He has a core of 15 to 20 members who play very regularly. He has infused a collective spirit in the team and the dividends are for all to see.”

Many have put Fernandes’s success down to his fresh ideas and modern techniques. One member of the coaching fraternity observed that he played “a good progressive style and this includes pressing and fast possession towards the goal not to mention lot of attention paid to set pieces”.

The Goan himself puts it down to fitness training and fast pressing. “Youth development has changed a lot since I was a player,” he said. “[Back] then we would do stand-alone training; now we do more drills with the ball involved, for the player to understand game situations better. We pay more importance to fitness because you cannot press for 90 minutes without being fit. We earned four goals in Serbia through our pressing.

He added, “I have been a player too. It is boring for players to just defend throughout the 90 minutes and sit back. They also want to play attacking football. I firmly believe in that philosophy.”

The India Under-16s are headed to a tournament in China next, as Fernandes and the team will hope to keep the momentum going. It’s a long, winding road to Malaysia, as the young Indian footballers and their “shy” head coach look to conquer it in style every step of the way.