The India U-23 national team last played a game in March 2019 – over two years ago.

The transition of U-19 players to the national team under Igor Stimac has been as seamless as ever. The customary switch in earlier days was a two-step process and usually included a little experience with the U-23 squad before a player donned the senior team shirt. However, such customs have changed dramatically worldwide, since the evolution of 16-year-old and 18-year-old wonder kids globally. Meanwhile, countries such as India that are vying to build a system to churn out better footballers would be in better health if they continued to adopt the gradual phasing in of young footballers into the limelight of global football using the U-23 national team.

The U-23 teams are immensely active in the European sphere. They have been a major stepping stone for most professional footballers, except for a few prodigious talents such as Kylian Mbappe, who take the step up after the U-19 level.

India’s ‘inactive’ U-23 team

‘Inactive’ isn’t an adjective we would like to associate with a building block. However, such has been the scenario for the U-23 side that last played a game on 24th March 2019. It was more than two years ago, against Tajikistan during an AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers. The team had lost both its qualifiers, the other one against Uzbekistan.

The only other tournament this team plays is the SAFF Championships that takes place once every two years. A 15-day preparatory camp is organized, and the team, arguably the strongest in talent amongst its competitors, is expected to lift the trophy they’ve won 7 times, the maximum. Coming to the core question – what happens to the development of the players who are not breakaway stars/talents, but a need for the future? What happens to their development at the international stage?

Who are these ‘not breakaway talents?’

Several.

With India’s goalkeeping roster brimming with talent at the senior level and secure with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Amrinder Singh (and more) for the next few years, what happens to the likes of Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, Prabhsukhan Gill, Arshdeep Singh and Mohammad Nawaz among others? This is exactly the kind of situation that brings the U-23 side in the roost.

This team, too, should at least have 2-3 camps every year, and play invitational tournaments regularly across the globe. When a project such as the Indian Arrows can be given so much push, why isn’t the same thrust provided to this batch of players? There are several young players who deserve to play for India’s national team. However, not everyone finds a spot in the senior team. The U-23 team hence provides exposure, and another audition for the national team.

The likes of Sumit Rathi, Shubham Sarangi, Boris Singh Thangjam, Deepak Tangri, Princeton Rebello, Rahul KP, Ninthoi, Aniket Jadhav and Rahim Ali are players that are well above the U-19 bracket. They will need to do something beyond the ordinary to even knock on the doors of the senior national team. If the U-23 team grooms them together, it will help the future of Indian football.

More examples

Manvir Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan, Sahal Abdul Samad and Anirudh Thapa have all travelled this road. They are currently important members of the national squad. The experience of wearing the national crest at the U-23 level is priceless; they would concur. Qualifiers such as Asian U-23 cannot be won by a bits-and-pieces team. It needs a proper roadmap to groom a group of players together for at least an year or so. Only then will we see the right form of cohesion and understanding between the youngsters and clearly, the next batch of the national team.

Thus, it is the need of the hour for AIFF to revitalize the U-23 team that is getting ready to play its next game six months from now on 22nd October 2021, an U-23 AFC qualifier. It will help the team stage a threat at that level and help their chances of qualification to the holy grail – the Olympics.

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