If Indian football is dreaming big, much of the credit goes to Colm Toal who has been working with the age-group teams as the technical director in Goa since 2007.
In a freewheeling interview, Toal stresses the Indian boys aren't inferior to their western counterparts. But they need to match the athleticism and the size of the higher-ranked teams.
What's your assessment of the boys and the teams you have coached so far?
In the last four years, I have been lucky to have worked with a lot of talented youngsters and a support-staff who have always been 100% supportive of the programme. We have coached boys at all age-groups -- from Under-13 to Under-19 and the results have been fabulous as he have had many promising batches graduating into the mainstream.
Indian Arrows have been our best team so far. AIFF's decision to register an U-21 team in the I-League has been the most positive decision during my stint in India. It was frustrating to watch the talented U-19 boys fading away because there was no structure in the I-League to take care of them. And the entire credit goes to the coach and the support staff that a team devoid of foreigners have done reasonably well. Let's also not forget the boys are already a part of the Olympic squad and stay the future of the country.
From a technical point of view where do you see the Indian boys in comparison to their Western counterparts?
I feel we shouldn't be comparing our boys with their counterparts in Europe or North America. All I can tell you is that in 2007, we had a training camp in Germany where our U-16 team convincingly beat three Bundesliga Academy Teams. We beat Stuttgart, 1860 Munich and FC Augsburg by an identical 2-0 margin. In addition, in 2008 the same team travelled to England and drew 3-3 with Manchester United's U-16 team. In none of these matches did we feel that the European boys were either technically or tactically better than us.
Are you satisfied with the skill level of the boys?
Every coach intends to improve the technical ability of his players and we are no different. The international matches we have played over the past four years have been an education for us. We have learnt the hard way that in comparison to Asia's best, we need to improve. More than the technique, we need to match the size, power and athleticism of the higher-ranked teams.
Does the size of a footballer matter? Can teams with 'smaller' boys be successful?
During my stay in India, I have heard that we need to adapt our style of play to suit the 'smaller' Indian players. This is a wrong notion. There is no style of play that is going to make a 'small' international team successful.
In fact, we are working with the state associations and concentrating on 'bigger' boys. Size is always a sensitive issue when you are dealing with young players but everybody is encouraged to believe that 'if you are good enough you are big enough.'
What are the areas you stress upon?
We concentrate on the four areas that will help to develop our national team -- physical fitness, technical ability, tactical awareness and mental strength. Unless you possess them, you cannot be successful in international football.
India is a vast country with many languages with the boys coming from different socio-cultural backgrounds. How do you communicate with them -- because not all speak and understand English?
Communication is an extremely important factor for coaches. Our coaches take turns from their own coaching duties and translate it for me. They enjoy this extra responsibility and feel they benefit from it. Jose Mourinho too, began his coaching career as a translator.
Each boy in the Academy is required to study on a daily basis for 2-3 hours. The medium of instruction is both English and Hindi. I would say the tutors do a good job -- the proof stays that the Indian Arrows boys don't require a translator anymore.
How do you describe the support of the All India Football Federation?
Every National Academy needs the support of its Federation. I would like to thank former General Secretary Alberto Colaco and his successor Kushal Das, both of whom have been very supportive of the programme.
AIFF has stressed on the continuity process. It means the Programme needs to be continued at any cost. Now every team works on a two-year cycle in their preparation for U-16 and U-19 Asian Qualifiers.
In 2007 the U-16 team qualified for the Asian Championship. Do you see that batch or others graduating and moving out of the country and playing in some other domestic Leagues?
The U-16 team winning the Qualifying Group in 2007 stays our best result so far. To win a group that included Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon was a big achievement indeed. Thirteen boys from that squad are presently playing for the Indian Arrows which is based in Gurgaon.
Every chance we get, we talk about the importance of differentiating between winning and development. Results at this level -- in a National Academy, are important but not as important as producing players who would go ahead and make a meaningful contribution to our senior national team.
Sooner or later, we are going to have players who will play in a League outside the country. Till then, I hope they commit themselves to the national team. Our national team can only be as good as the players in our I-League teams are.