AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: Consistency and creativity! These have been the two aspects of the India U-16/U-17 teams over the last eight years. The Blue Colts had consistently qualified for the AFC U-16 Championship, and the AFC U-17 Asian Cup (the rebranded version of the former) in 2018, 2020, and 2023.
While Indian Football is at a stage where qualification for the continental stage is celebrated as a success, there is one team that put that aside, dreamt of bigger things, and came tantalisingly close to achieving them. The man behind such ‘success’ and the subsequent audacious dream that almost turned into reality is none other than Bibiano Fernandes. While the 46-year-old now leaves the National Team fold after spending eight bright years in it, he leaves behind a sense of contentment and stoic belief that India can one day make it to the world’s biggest footballing stage au mérite.
“As I come to the end of eight tremendous years with the India U-17 and U-16 National Teams, the feeling is one of ample gratitude from my end. I would like to thank the AIFF President Mr Kalyan Chaubey and Secretary General Dr Shaji Prabhakaran for all their help,” said Bibiano Fernandes. “It has been an incredible experience, and I’ve been fortunate to have had the pleasure of working with all the players and support staff who were with me during these years. My assistant coach Kanan (Priolkar), goalkeeping coaches Felix (Dsouza) and Jude Barretto, team manager Rocky, analyst Mishal (Thanveer), physios Burhan and Sudarson, and kit manager Constancio (Pango) have all been great. Whatever we achieved would not have been possible without any one of them."
“I am truly grateful for the support, guidance, and friendship I’ve received from each one of them, and I want to express my deepest appreciation for the hard work and dedication that each one of them has put into helping the India U-16 and U-17 batches win three consecutive SAFF titles and to qualify for the AFC Championships three times in a row,” he said. “It was also a privilege to work with each and every player that was in our team across all the three batches, and I want to thank all of them for giving their all to the beautiful game.”
Perhaps the most memorable moment for the Blue Colts under Fernandes came in the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship in Malaysia, where India finished second in Group C to book their spot in the quarter-finals – one more win away from qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Vikram Partap Singh and co. came back with broken hearts, however, after a second-half strike from the Republic of Korea’s Jeong Sang-bin meant a 0-1 defeat for India in the quarter-finals.
In next year's FIFA U-17 World Cup, Korea Republic made it all the way to the quarter-finals, while Sang-bin went on to play for clubs like Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League and Grasshopper CZ in the Swiss Super League. For India, the dream carried on.
The following batch of U-16s under Bibiano Fernandes raised eyebrows and induced goosebumps in every Indian Football fan, going on to score a massive 32 goals in seven matches across the SAFF U-15 Championship and the AFC U-16 Championship Qualifiers, conceding only one goal, which came against a strong Uzbekistan side, in front of a hostile crowd in Tashkent.
“The kind of football we played with the first batch was completely different from that in the second batch, and that entirely came down to the experience that the coaching staff gained in the first campaign and implemented the learnings in the second one,” said Fernandes. “I feel we had a certain amount of luck while qualifying for the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship, but we made the most of it to gain the experience.”
Sadly, the second batch never got to play in the AFC U-16 Championship in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“Those were unforeseen times and I feel extremely sad for the boys who had worked so hard to get to that level but never got to test themselves against the best in Asia due to no fault of their own,” he said. “But such were the times. Football is a very small thing when people are suffering and dying all around you.”
For the next batch, a SAFF U-17 Championship victory in Sri Lanka was followed by a successful qualification campaign in the AFC U-17 Asian Cup Qualifiers in Saudi Arabia, and the dream continued. The situation in the AFC U-17 Asian Cup group stage was, of course, much more overwhelming, but the Blue Colts performed admirably, going on to put up a tough fight against eventual champions Japan, losing 4-8 in the process.
“What I can say at the end of the day is that everyone gave their best, and that’s all I can ask of my players,” said Fernandes. “I believe it’s important to acknowledge those in every arena of life who bring about a positive impact in everything. I’m thankful to all the players, staff, and fans that supported us through thick and thin and believed in our journey. Let’s keep supporting the Blue Colts. We have one goal, one dream!”