The tactician also feels that believing their abilities helped the Blue Colts in their campaign in the AFC U-16 Championships.

Stoic defending has been the order of the day for the Indian teams in continental competitions over the years. But that is no longer the case. This is a new India, and that shift in mentality has not only been adopted, but even mastered to a large extent, by the U-16 Indian side.

This is an India that does not think just about qualifying. This is an India that no more thinks of eking out results. This is an India that is no more there to make up the numbers.

Watch: Bibiano Fernandes talks about his India U-16 side after qualification to AFC U-16 Championship 2020

The India U-16 boys have been on a destructive run of form, decimating all opposition in front of them, having gone on a 14-match unbeaten streak. They have scored 61 goals in the process, conceding only eight.

At the AFC Championship Qualifiers, they have netted 11 in three matches, something that has taken all opponents by surprise. In fact, the coaching staff of Bahrain, after being vanquished 0-5 last week, made it a point to walk up to the Indian officials and congratulate them on building a “brilliant team.”


Within the camp, however, it is the coaches who are constantly on the guard, not letting this magnificent streak get to the head of the young and impressionable minds. Creativity of the field of play requires an amount of discipline. While the discipline part was instilled into these boys in the early days of the camp, the more recent months have seen the coaching staff nurture their creativity.

Even on the eve of a crunch game like the one against hosts Uzbekistan in the AFC U-16 Championship Qualifiers, the boys, many of whom are fans of Cristiano Ronaldo, would spend the better part of an hour watching the game between Juventus and Hellas Verona.

While the cutlery clinked away in the other parts of the dinner hall, it was near the television sets that groans went off when a penalty was thudded onto the bar, while goals by Miguel Veloso, Aaron Ramsey and Cristiano Ronaldo were met with cheerful applause.

Some would be sitting in a corner, drawing up calculations about the Groups, often asking one of the coaches about the different scenarios. However, all such questions were met with a counter-question: “What was our objective for the Qualifiers?” – “Nine points, sir,” the players answered back.

“It is all about belief,” quips coach Bibiano Fernandes. “If I as a coach do not believe that we can beat opponents like Uzbekistan, then of course, that reflects on the players. They are a talented bunch, but often it comes down to whether you can believe you can win.”

As the match approached, and the team made their way to the stadium, it was the coaching staff that absorbed the magnanimity of the match. That a win, or even a draw would create history, as India would qualify as group champions for the first time. For the players, however, it was more a matter of enjoying the football.

“You see those stands out there? They will be filled with people. They will be backing Uzbekistan, and will be making a lot of noise. But you need to forget about that and play your game,” Fernandes had told the boys ahead of the game.

Indeed, the trumpets, drums, and the chants that rang out in the stadium reigned supreme, and made it difficult for the bunch of teenagers from different parts of India, as they attempted to play their expansive game.

It was perhaps the first time that they faced a crowd that was against them, and it took them some time to get going, but it was the away side that forced their way into the Uzbek box and took the lead via Sridarth.

“The way that these guys played in front of the crowd, really goes to show their character,” said Fernandes after the match. “They stood up against a daunting opposition and held their ground. This an experience.”

The striker immediately darted off to the corner flag and paid tribute to his idol Ronaldo by imitating his signature goal celebration. The crowd had gone quiet. In about 10 minutes, both Uzbekistan and their supporters came back, as the match ended with 1-1 draw, but India had well and truly announced themselves.

There are greater challenges to come in the future, but these young Tigers have shone bright in the face of adversity, and have surely painted a brighter future for the Indian National Team.