India played out a 1-1 draw against hosts Uzbekistan in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on Sunday to finish on top of Group B and qualify for the AFC U-16 Championship to be held in Bahrain next year.
India, coached by Bibiano Fernandes, finished on seven points from three matches – the same as Uzbekistan but qualified as group winners by virtue of better goal difference (+10) in comparison to the home team’s +3.
India had earlier beaten Turkmenistan and Bahrain by identical 5-0 margins.
Needing just a draw to top the group, India took the lead in the 68th minute when Sridarth tapped the ball home off a rebound.
But even though the hosts levelled the scores in the 81st minute, the Indians managed to hold on to a draw and achieve their mission.
This is India’s third consecutive entry into the AFC U-16 Championships and ninth overall.
Since 2011, this is India’s fourth entry into the AFC U-16 Championships, the previous ones being in 2011, 2015, and in 2017.
Only last year, India suffered a heart-breaking loss to Korea Republic in the quarterfinals of the AFC U-16 Championships, where they were a match away from a direct qualification to the next Fifa U-17 World Cup.
“I am extremely proud of my boys,” head coach Bibiano Fernandes said moments after India’s qualification.
“There has been a lot of hard work put in, and every support staff, and player deserves equal credit.
“The efforts put in by AIFF at the youth level by providing us continuous exposure tours with help from Sports Authority of India has helped the boys mature,” he added.
The coach, however, said that the real challenge for his side starts now.
“The real challenge begins now. Last year, we suffered a heartbreak in the quarter-finals against Korea Republic. Our preparation for the AFC U-16 Finals has already begun with the final whistle,” Fernandes said.
Meanwhile hailing the team’s effort, AIFF President Praful Patel said the boys made him “proud.”
“I am extremely proud of the boys. Well done. Congratulations!” Patel said.
“The AIFF has always aimed at building a robust youth development structure. This is our third consecutive entry to the AFC U-16 Championships, and I believe, there will be many more to come.”
Praising the performance of the boys, AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das described this as a “huge victory for Indian football.”
“Qualifying ahead of Uzbekistan, that too in Uzbekistan, speaks volumes of the efforts being put in at AIFF’s youth development structure. The boys are now on a 14-match unbeaten streak, and that’s something quite unprecedented in youth football,” he said.