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The 44-year-old has worked with most players in the U-23 side in the youth setup.

The next edition of the AFC U-23 Championships is set to take place in 2022 in Uzbekistan. The Qualifiers for the AFC U-23 Championships begin later this year in October. India find themselves alongside the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kyrgyzstan in Group E. All matches of Group E will be played in the UAE, beginning October 27.

India’s U-23 team last played a match on March 24, 2019, against Tajikistan in the AFC U-23 Championship Qualifiers. Khel Now has time and again harped upon the need for revival of the U-23 setup in the country as a building block for the senior team. This tournament, after a drought of four long years, brings back a glimmer of hope once again.

Igor Stimac has given the senior team a breath of ‘fresh’ air, with an added impetus on youth development. The likes of Suresh Singh Wangjam, Amarjit Singh Kiyam and more recently Akash Mishra and Liston Colaco, have all been basking in the limelight of the national crest. These names will take leading roles in October, as India face yet another uphill battle to qualify.

Why Bibiano Fernandes?

Bibiano Fernandes India U-16 Football Team
Bibiano Fernandes has worked with most Indian national youth teams (Courtesy: AIFF)

India’s qualifying journey for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup is a secret to none. The Blue Tigers won just one and drew four games to finish third and make it to the third round of qualification. With a youthful squad at his disposal, Fernandes has time and again pulled off major coups.

India qualified for the AFC U-16 Championship as leaders from a group comprising of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Bahrain. On the road, the Colts defeated both Turkmenistan and Bahrain 5-0. The team played out an impressive 1-1 draw against the Uzbeks. The tournament was set to take place in 2020, but was subsequently cancelled by the governing body.

India reached the quarterfinals of the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship with Fernandes at the helm, only to be ousted by a solitary goal against South Korea. The team made it to the main event after playing a brave goalless draw against Iraq, regarded as one of the strongest Asian teams. Had India won the quarters, they would have qualified for the U-17 World Cup, on merit. It was the best-ever finish for India at the AFC U-16 level.

Experience of working with young players

Vikram Pratap Singh, Rohit Danu and several other players were part of that team. They will form the core of the U-23 squad that will play the AFC U-23 Championship Qualifiers in October. The players have worked well with the Goan tactiician in the past and share a healthy relationship with him. Bibiano Fernandes, who has worked his entire career with players at several degrees of the youth level, knows the strengths, weaknesses and certainly possesses the ideas to bring out the best of this young Indian side.

Bibiano Fernandes believes in the ideology of ‘if you don’t concede, you don’t lose’ and knows how to dismantle the opposition’s defence at the same time. The balanced approach is helping India with the right mix of players and a set pattern of play. This, coupled with the experience of working under Bibiano in the past, can help the U-23 squad gel quickly and play a definitive style that can see off the difficult challenges that lie ahead.

The U-23 squad is brimming with talent and if accorded a little bravery and freedom, can run riot against several top sides. With the likes of Wangjam, Danu, Komal Thatal, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, Narender, Sumit Rathi and Amarjit Singh Kiyam playing key roles, the team looks good on-paper. These boys have transitioned into senior pros after spending a lot of time together at the AIFF Elite Academy. All they need now is a coach, who knows how to get the best out of them, to achieve success.

Bibiano Fernandes has a history of doing well at qualification tournaments and has always eked out results. If given the opportunity, the tenacity and cohesiveness with which he builds his team is a proper delight. With such a talented set of ingredients, the dish can only be mouth-watering. But, will we have the chef on the slab?

Why not Igor Stimac?

Igor Stimac
Igor Stimac was recently given a contract extension until September 2021 (Courtesy: AIFF)

Igor Stimac as the head coach of this team is an exciting prospect as well. However, the Croatian will need time to gel well with the side and impart his ideas. There hasn’t been a U-23 national camp since 2019. Thus, Stimac hasn’t really managed this group of players for too long to know them as well as Bibiano does.

Looking at all factors, the buck favours the Goan over the Croatian. However, it is down to the AIFF to take the final call for the Qualifiers and the AFC U-23 Championships.

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