The conversation in the VIP lounge at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in the capital on Friday evening was almost surreal. Officials of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), who had sacked German coach Nicolai Adam barely eight months ago, were actually discussing how good he was as the India U-17 team under the watch of their new Portuguese coach were going down to the United States, the weakest team in their group barring the hosts, in the inaugural match of the U-17 FIFA World Cup.
The German was apparently strict with the players and when the team performed dismally in matches they played abroad, the coach was blamed for it and his contract cancelled.
The Portuguese coach, Luis Norton de Matos, raised eyebrows on Friday with his hyper activity on the sideline. Watching him striding back and forth, straying out of the designated area, gesticulating wildly, a former footballer quipped that the coach looked more like a player. On two occasions, the fourth referee was forced to warn him to remain in the box meant for him and the reserves. The Indian team caught attention with their individual skills but failed to jell as a team even before a cheering home crowd.
The formation Matos used was a defensive 4-5-1 with only one striker but with five midfielders. This formation is used only when a team has an extraordinary striker and the opponent is very formidable. But in India’s Group, USA is the only side against which India stood a chance. But the coach seemed reluctant to take his chances and appeared more keen to play for a draw. The US team took full advantage of the Indians’ defensive strategy and dominated the Indian half. But for their erratic passes, particularly long passes, the US could have scored more than the three goals they finally put in.
Nor did the Indian coach appear to have done his homework. In the first half, the right full back kicked the ball outside the line thrice in quick succession and quite unnecessarily. But the coach seemed to ignore the antics. Any other coach would have replaced the errant footballer.
When the US finally was awarded a spot kick, the chief coach and the goalkeeping coach, had they studied the rival players, would normally have signalled to the goalkeeper which side the player would be inclined to kick the ball in, right or the left. All senior coaches do their research and this particular homework in advance. But rather than concentrate on the penalty kick and help the goalkeeper prepare mentally, he was busy berating the defender whose tackle attracted the penalty. Pulling up players in public is normally avoided and all good coaches do it at lemon time in the dressing room.
“The Indian team took 40 minutes to change before the practice session in New Delhi whereas the US team was on the ground within two minutes. This reflects on the management of the team,” quipped Anuj Gupta, who runs a residential football Academy in Delhi, where participating FIFA Under-17 teams held their practice session. This was possibly one of the reasons for the Indian team being outclassed by a not-so-strong US side in the very first match.