When the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 – the nation’s first ever FIFA competition – begins next October, it will be the high point of an adventure that has lasted two years for Nicolai Adam. After all, in April 2015, the German took over as India’s national youth team coach with one clearly defined objective.
“My job is to prepare the millennial generation for this U-17 World Cup, which will then hopefully be a catalyst for the growth of football in India,” says Adam. “After the World Cup, we want to bring football to 11 million children. From a young age and starting from scratch, kids will learn about football in youth leagues, which we will establish, as you can’t find them everywhere yet. I hope India seizes this opportunity and that everyone co-operates to make it a great event and ensure India has a footballing future. The potential and the interest are definitely there, and the excitement ahead of the U-17 World Cup is massive.”
India are currently in the lower reaches of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and mostly play against other Asian nations. The world’s second-most populous country has so far been unable to make a serious impression on the international stage and has never represented Asia at a FIFA competition.
That will all change next year, however, and to make sure their tournament is not over after three group matches, Adam is doing everything he can to prepare his team. The best way to do that, in his view, is competition practice. “We need this period to play at the highest level, so we can get closer to where we want to be next year. At this level it’s just a fact that, if you make mistakes, you get punished. We need to cut out our own mistakes and conversely force the opposition into making them. Our playing style isn’t based on sitting back and staying deep. We encourage the players towards an attractive style of play. That includes actively winning the ball back, counter-attacking quickly and keeping possession.”
Tussling with titans
The first signs of progress can undoubtedly be seen. India qualified for the 2016 Asian U-16 Championship, held on home soil, and gave a good account of themselves, particularly in a 3-3 draw with Saudi Arabia. They also lost against United Arab Emirates and Iran and finished bottom of the group, but their improvements were again evident at the 2016 BRICS U-17 Football Cup, where they impressed in closely-fought defeats to Brazil (3-1), Russia (1-0) and China PR (1-0).
“We were competitive in phases of each game. If you’re India and you only lose 1-0 to Russia or 3-1 against Brazil, that’s not bad,” said Adam. “We were close to getting a point. The preparation we’ve done in the last year has been very important for us to get to a level where we can win a game 1-0. Normally, four points will get you through the group stage of an U-17 World Cup, and that would be a sensational achievement for us. We’re the biggest outsiders and we’ll be putting our heart into it. We obviously want to record some good results, but I’m also making sure I coach the players well because after the World Cup, the work carries on.”
Adam is currently on tour with his team in preparation for practice tournaments in Brazil and Russia before the main event next October. Nevertheless, he and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) are still arranging training camps all over the country to find talented young players who can help the team in 2017. Furthermore, a new program called Overseas Scouting Project, which was launched by the AIFF and with the support of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) recently, should provide every eligible Indian living outside India an electronic platform to present his football-playing talent directly to the scouts of India's U-17 World Cup team.
Kindling a flame
The U-17 World Cup should be only the beginning of something bigger for football in India, as Adam explains. “My president is a man of vision. He already has it in his head that, at some point in the future, India will host the FIFA U-20 World Cup and the World Cup itself. Now that’s obviously something for the future, but the work I’m doing here is intended to kindle that flame. However, we need to make sure that parallel structures are created in terms of coaches’ education and infrastructure.”
Those responsibilities should fall on somebody else, though, according to Adam. “I don’t see myself as a ‘football development’ guy. I spent five years in Azerbaijan as the national youth team coach and head of coaching education, and I did manage to establish some of the structures I mentioned before in this capacity. But in India, that’s a job for my association, not me.”
In the 43-year-old’s view, the whole world should visit the land of Mahatma Gandhi, the Taj Mahal and the Lotus Temple. “Coming to India is always worth it and whoever wants to experience an interesting country should come here. It’s not a normal country; in fact, it’s basically its own continent. And if you like football as well, you can’t really go wrong.”