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Covid-19: Are India in danger of being handicapped going into the 2020 AFC U16 Championship?

4 min read

India look set to take on three continental powerhouses in Bahrain later this year. However, a lack of match fitness could cripple preparations…

India are all set to begin their quest to qualify for the 2021 U17 World Cup later this year. India U16 side will be taking part in the 2020 AFC U16 Championship in Bahrain which is set to kick-off on 25 November 2020, with semifinalists getting a chance to play in the 2021 event.

After taking part in the 2017 U17 World Cup by virtue of being the hosts, India were dealt a heartbreak in their bid to qualify for the 2019 U17 World Cup when they were halted a step from qualification. South Korea beat them in the quarter-finals of the 2018 AFC U16 Championship, courtesy a narrow 1-0 result.

However, the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic could well throw a spanner in India’s works as they gear up to go one step further this time around.

India have been drawn into a very tough group on paper, along with continental powerhouses in South Korea, Australia and Uzbekistan. It will take a terrific tournament from Bibiano Fernandes’ charges to make it past the group stage into the quarter-finals.

But the India U16 team have been in good form, as evidenced by their qualification campaign where they beat West Asian giants Bahrain (3-1) and Turkmenistan (5-0) with ease. They also held Uzbekistan, whom they will face in the group stages, to a 1-1 draw in Tashkent last September.

The team, understandably, are high in confidence and have shown that they have what it takes to fight it out with Asia’s best teams. However, the ongoing lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic could put the Indian boys at a disadvantage, for no fault of theirs.

The team has had literally no match practice since March when the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had to suspend all leauges and competitions, both at the senior and youth levels, following a government advisory due to Covid-19.

It has been the case throughout the globe where all live sports have suffered stoppages and suspensions. However, the number of positive cases in India has shown no sign of abating and the cases have been increasing at a rapid rate.

As of now, India has recorded over 440000 cases and the curve has shown no signs of flattening. As such it is very much unclear when the goverment will be able to ease off restrictions imposed on live sports including football, meaning it could be a while before the U16 players might be able to get back on the field.

In contrast, the situation is much better for India’s three group opponents. South Korea, who have done remarkably well to contain the spread, restarted their domestic league back on May 8th. Not only that, the U16 team has actually started training together after five months off the field. Song Kyung-sub’s side will train for five days, from June 22 to June 26, with a 34-member camp which will look to shake off any rust and get in shape for the tournament in November.

The domestic league in Uzbekistan has also seen a resumption. The Uzbek Super League started again on June 13 and the matches are going on behind locked doors. This should only pave the way for their U16 footballers to get back on the training pitch and start their preparations soon.

Though there is no clarity on Australia U16 team resuming preparations, the impending restart of the A-League only means it is only a matter of time before their U16 stars get back on the field. A-League clubs are currently in preparations for the restart which is scheduled for July.

India’s domestic leagues, both the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League, won’t start until November at least given that the 2019-20 season has been completed. However, the U16 team will need to wait before they can get back on the field for training and conditioning. The lockdown is yet to be eased properly and there is also the matter of quarantine and other formalities for inter-state travel, with the players needing to travel from their hometowns.

Even if the team is able to restart training, getting quality match practice will be harder. Travelling abroad might not be feasible and will depend on how the Covid-19 pandemic spreads in the coming months. Playing another team from India might also not be easy, given the same situation.

Currently, head coach Bibiano Fernandes is doing what he can with online sessions. “It has been difficult for us and all over the world but everyone is finding ways to work with the boys. I know some countries have already started training. What we have started doing is we had online sessions with the boys thrice a week where we conduct strength sessions, goalkeeping sessions and ball mastering sessions. I know it is not enough but we are keeping in touch with the players,” he revealed during an Instagram session with All India Football Federation (AIFF).

“It is not in anybody‚Äôs hand. Hope the pandemic gets over as soon as possible. The plan is to play matches locally but higher level opponents. We will try to play international matches but if it does not happen, we will play matches in Goa,” he added.

Safe to say that everything looks hazy right now. The India U16 side might end up going into the tournament a ‘not so ideal’ preparation.

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