With the Indian Football team out of reckoning for both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the AFC Asian Cup in 2015, it is important for chief coach Wim Koevermans to look beyond the SAFF Championship next month and plan for long term future.
There is no denying the fact that India is the strongest team in the SAFF region and any doubts regarding the same were dispelled when the national team lifted the 2011 edition of the event played at home . However with the team performing disastrously in the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup and 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers , there are serious question marks over the current team’s ability to play away from home and the SAFF Championship to be held in Nepal next month offers a perfect opportunity for team India to look beyond the current set of players and prepare for life ahead.
Next major set of assignments for the national team will be the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers both of which will be held in 2015 and with two years still left for these events, it is imperative that Wim Koevermans sheds the short term goal of achieving success in the SAFF region and focuses on building a team with a younger set of players who will form the core for these two major events. The pressure on Wim Koevermans to deliver the results is high ever since the debacle in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers but in the interest of Indian Football, it is important that he builds a team for the future given the fact that India has no major events coming up.
The likes of Arata Izumi, Sandip Nandy and others players who are in their 30s are certainly not expected to be around for a long time. Even the likes of Sunil Chhetri, Mehtab Hossain, Syed Rahim Nabi will turn 30 in a couple of years and while it is necessary that the team is built around them, it is equally important to bring some young players into fold and give them ample playing time. The likes of Lalrindika Ralte and Milan Singh can be able heirs to the likes of Clifford Miranda and Mehtab Hossain and it is important to give them ample playing time rather than keep them waiting on the bench. The same applies to Alwyn George who perhaps at the moment is the only playmaker-attacking midfielder that India has, ergo it is important that these players are given adequate chances in the tournaments like SAFF Championship.
Another challenge for Wim Koevermans will be to infuse young players specially from the U-19 and the U-22 batch of players into the national team camp and then gradually into the national team. The U-19 boys are the same set of boys who participated in the AFC U-16 Championship and won accolades with their determined performances. The lads who are going to participate in the AFC U-19 qualifiers are currently preparing in Goa and their results have been impressive to say the least. The likes of Uttam Rai , Daniel Lalhlimpuia and others are already household names. Even the U-22 batch of players like Brandon Fernandes and Holicharan Narzary need to be given a look in to ensure that we utilize this break from major events to launch ourselves for the future.
Koevermans also needs to set his team selection right. Foreign coaches in India have been notoriously infamous for their player selection and a prime example of this was former coach Bob Houghton who continuously ignored Mehtab Hossain despite the player putting in impressive performances. While Houghton’s persistence with a particular set of players can be justified by saying that he wanted to build for the Asian Cup in 2011, Koevermans’ persistence with several players, most notably Gouramangi Singh and Raju Gaikwad, cannot be justified given the fact that the national team has no major assignments in times to come.
The central defensive paring of Gouramangi Singh and Raju Gaikwad has been found wanting on lot of occasions and despite this Koevermans has continuously ignored the likes Anas Edathodika, Dharmaraj Ravanan and Arnab Mondal who have been standout performers with their clubs. Raju in fact has often found himself third in the pecking order at East-Bengal behind Arnab and Gurwinder but has always been ahead of the duo in the national team reckoning , something which is totally inexplicable.Though the inclusions of Dawson Fernandes, Mohd. Rafique and Karma Tsewang atleast in the prelimnary squad is a welcome sign and sends out an important message of performances being rewarded, Koevermans needs to get his squad spot on and try out some new players rather than stick to the same set of players and the SAFF Championship is a perfect platform for doing that. With the national team playing after a long time, the expectation from the coach and the team are sky high and probably this has forced the Dutchman to select familiar faces with whom he has worked before.
Koevermans has till now preferred to play a single striker upfront – a strategy which after working well in the Nehru Cup has failed to reap dividends. Sunil Chhetri has struggled to perform in the absence of the second striker and with opposition teams heavily marking him, India have struggled to get among the goals, as was evident in the game against Myanmar. The SAFF Championship thus offers Koevermans an opportunity to try out new strategies against not so strong opposition and carve out a formation which will suit the national team in times to come. The debacles in the 2011 Asian Cup and the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup showed that the long ball strategy is not suited for Indian Football but Wim has still stuck to the same philosophy. It is high-time that we learn from the previous mistakes and prepare for the future.
Ever since he was appointed the coach of India, Koevermans has been stressing on the need to play friendly matches on the FIFA match dates but the fact of the matter remains that India have played only two friendly matches in his one year tenure so far. Since their AFC Challenge debacle team India has not played any friendly match despite the I-League coming to an end. This is another area he needs to focus as such matches not only offer an opportunity for the team to gain some valuable ranking points but also provide an opportunity for Koevermans to experiment with players and tactics.
Football in Asia has picked up at an impressive rate with both the East and West Asian nations working hard to raise their standards and Indian has fallen way behind. SAFF nations like Bangladesh, Maldives and Afghanistan have also made good progress and as a result have qualified for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. Even though India is not guaranteed to win the SAFF Championship, and even if it does, a more important point at the moment is to look beyond the immediate future and utilize this forced break from major events to bounce back.