Quietly laying strong foundation for future

Under coach Bibiano Fernandes (right), the Indian under-16 football team has made impressive gains.

The hardest part of a youth team coach’s job is coaching the kids. Bibiano Fernandes knows this. The Indian U-16 head coach has seen the highs and the lows that coaches at every level face. It’s just that he does it with kids of an impressionable age, who are still developing the coping mechanism that every successful athlete finds.

“Finding motivation even in failures is key to success,” he says.

A young coach that he is, Fernandes is also learning on the job.

Last year at the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship, his wards came close to qualifying for the 2019 U-17 World Cup - on merit. A cruel late goal from South Korea in the quarterfinals was all it took. He walked amidst the prone Indian boys after the final whistle, head held high, offering a shoulder and words of comfort.

“To be honest that loss was a bit hard to deal with,” he says, in retrospect. “The boys were all shattered. I somehow convinced them that it was just the beginning of the journey for them. They were kids after all. And now most of the players from that team are a part of the triumphant SAFF U-18 team. Definitely, that was the best ever finish by an Indian side at the AFC U-16 Championship and this time, we know what is the target to beat.”

Yes, this time. The Indian team once again qualified for next year’s continental tournament last month with an unbeaten record from their Group which included Turkmenistan, Bahrain and Uzbekistan. It’s a sign of consistency that the Indian football has always sought for.

It wasn’t easy. Language barriers, continuity with players, scouting for the right talent have all been challenges facing the 42-year-old coach who likes players who have ‘intelligence and speed in terms of decision making and creativity’.

It’s a test that the Goan has managed to overcome.

“(The previous experience) helped a lot. We stayed aware of the quality at the highest level, and required is to get throughout of the qualifiers. In the last edition, that was a kind of new for us. The education from last year’s Championship showed us where we were lacking. That self-evaluation helped a lot to prepare this year with more purpose,” he says before crediting the mental strength of the players under his guidance.

“The current generation of youngsters are mentally much stronger than the previous generations. I remember how Indian teams used to struggle when we came up against more dominant opponents. That isn’t the case anymore,” he remarks.

And the proof is in the pudding. In last year’s AFC U-16 Championships where India reached the quarterfinals for the first time in 16 years, they did not concede a single goal until the 68th minute of the quarterfinals, their fourth game in the tournament. In the qualifiers this year, they scored 11 and conceded one in three games. As they say, and Bibiano understands, you don’t lose if you don’t concede.

With the age group teams starting to do well - the U-15s and U-18s won the SAFF Cup this year- and the national team making headline with some impressive performances in the past month, it’s up to the likes of Bibiano and Floyd Pinto (U-20 head coach), among others of course, to ensure the supply chain into the national team is running smooth and the quality, philosophy and mindset are all in place before his wards set off on their paths.

“I place a lot of emphasis on building a winning habit because at the end of the day, we have to have results. However, that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice on your principles and playing style. When your players have clearly understood your philosophy, then you have the foundations right and that itself can help you get the desired results. With every passing year, we are improving at all levels in every age category. In 5-6 years we will have an even better team than we have now,” he opines.

For the Indian football faithful, that is music to ears.

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