With the FIFA U-17 World Cup kicking off in seven months' time, hosts India are working against time as they aim to impress in their maiden appearance. With expectations rising for the world's second most populous country, new boss Luis Norton de Matos has openly stated his goals of defying the odds and springing a surprise or two in their global debut.
"It is India's first World Cup, and it is a great challenge for us," the 63-year-old Portuguese manager told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "Theoretically, our chances of success are not big and there is common awareness of this fact. Yet that is what makes this challenge so unique and motivating. Because the team will represent the country, so they should play with dignity and pride. Our primary objective is to win the first game of the World Cup even if the odds are against us.
“Just as history shows, a team can defeat stronger opponents with determination. One-hundred organised, victory-driven and fearless men can defeat 1,000 enemies. Just as Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.'”
Chosen by destiny
Matos has accumulated plenty of experiences with age-group players during his 18 years as a coach, having run a football academy in Senegal and coached a young Guinea-Bissau national team. "My past experiences have provided me with insight, experience and an approach to dealing with youngsters," he said. "So it is not by chance in all my experiences as a professional coach, I have moulded young players."
His youth know-how didn't go unnoticed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) as he was appointed the U-17 coach at the start of March. While Indian fans are happy to see their team in the safe hands of an experienced coach like Matos, it is the former Portugal and Atletico forward who says that he owes gratitude to the country for offering him with a unique chance.
"It is an honour to participate in India's historical World Cup campaign," explained Matos, "It is magical to be living in India. Nothing in life happens by chance and man is chosen by destiny. Last year I read the book Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and was fascinated by the mystical power of India's past. And here I am, living it and looking for spirituality."
"To be honest I wasn't much familiar with Indian Football (before taking over)," he went on. "But football has a universal language and personally I have great expectations of working in an Asian country for the first time. After my experiences in Europe and Africa, this is a fantastic experience from all perspectives."
World Cup legacy
With the U-17 World Cup drawing near, footballing passion has been reignited across the country. And Matos believes that India, with a population of over 1.2 billion, has much to dream about and realise.
"I have no doubt about the country's enormous potential in youth," he said. "It is necessary to build on the scouting plan throughout all regions of the country, such as football schools with an adequate competitive structure that permits game evolution and fair play."
"In such a situation, the role of the coaches becomes fundamental. Results don’t come in a day, and it takes years to witness productive results of a foundation program. In my understanding, the organisation of the FIFA U-17 World Cup will be a decisive element for the development of Indian football."
Despite the short time he has spent in charge of the team, Matos' confidence is boosted by what he has seen from the players. "My initial contact with the U-17 World Cup came as a pleasant surprise. The players are highly focused on a goal and have displayed enormous desire to learn during the training sessions. Most importantly, they are humble, emotionally strong and motivated."
Of course, Matos is under no illusion that his tasks are easy considering that India failed to progress past the group phase in last year's AFC U-16 Championship. He is all too aware that the team has their work cut out if they are to compete against the world's best in October's World Cup. "The phase from now until October will be crucial in the development of the team. It’s all about hard work, sacrifice and focusing on technical and tactical aspects. The friendly games with stronger teams will point out our errors. It’s pertinent that the boys make progress by learning."
With over half a year to work with the team, Matos is already looking to the World Cup legacy. "Indian prodigies will be unearthed during the World Cup, but the real development will start after the World Cup. Media exposure is a tool that must not be ignored or understated. The U-17 team will lay the foundation for a future U-20 national team in the near future, and eventually the senior India team.”