Muscat: Much of the credit for the transformation of the boys in the AFC U-22 Championship goes to Head Coach Arthur Papas. With only 16 days of practice prior to landing in Muscat, Papas has been able to instill a sense of self-belief among the boys besides making them getting accustomed to a new style of play. Prior to India’s do-or-die encounter against Oman where an Indian win may see India through to the final phase, Papas isn’t willing to get affected by the permutations. The permutations tell you that an Indian victory and an Iraqi victory against UAE will see India through.
In an interview, Papas spoke at length about India’s performance in the Championship, the match against Oman, his upcoming assignment with Pailan Arrows and a whole lot more. EXCERPTS:
What are your thoughts for the match against Oman?
Football wise Oman are a very capable side who have speed all over the field. They prefer to get many numbers behind the ball and rely on a couple of excellent individuals in the final third who can make the difference. Their Central Defenders seem to be a bit uncomfortable on the ball so instead of building from the back, they prefer to play direct football.
I must also add that Oman have enjoyed a logistical joyride in the tournament so far. They have been the only team in the Championship to have played all their matches at 8pm instead of 5pm when the heat is so much more punishing. They have also played all matches at one certain Stadium (Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex) unlike other teams who have had to rotate for matches and training venues. In a Championship as such where you play 5 matches in 11 days, it’s a distinct advantage. This raises the question though of whether they are match hardened like our boys who have had to overcome every obstacle to reach this stage.
Going into the match against Oman, there’s a lot of calculation on the table. Do you get affected by it?
Not one bit! There isn’t any use to think elsewhere because irrespective we need to win our match. Therefore, we need to go into the Oman match with full concentration and focus on only what we can control. If at the end of 90 minutes we get a positive result, only then will we look at all the variables.
What do India need to do to get a positive result?
To get a positive result, we will have to ensure we are able to find a structure which allow us to win the second ball consistently and again we need to keep focusing on our positional understanding whenever we have the ball. In every game, we have started as the lowest ranked nation and wear the tag of 'underdogs' to those outside. Internally though, we have developed an amazing team spirit, inner self-belief and have consistently grown in confidence day by day whilst playing a very positive brand of football.
Prior to the kick-off of the Championship, did you believe, we will be going this far?
I always felt there are some countries which have more potential that what the FIFA Rankings reflect, India being one of them. This is the reason I accepted the position or else I could comfortably have remained at Australia in the A-League. But I wanted a real challenge and it's in my nature to always want to keep being challenged. It’s now my responsibility to improve the standards of football in the country in the areas that I am able to impact directly. We still have a long way to go but with people like Rob Baan and Wim Koevermans involved and with the Academies that are being established, we are only on the threshold of what is a huge potential.
In this group I have witnesses a talented generation of players who needed some guidance to believe they can do more and bring to the fore their footballing qualities which have always been there. Importantly, there is an eagerness to learn and a winning mentality and that’s needed for future development.
How much of a credit do you take for the transformation in the team?
From a personal point of view, I always remain humble and level headed and having been given the job it's been about adding my own personal ideas as to how to steer the squad in a certain direction.
I am most critical of my own performance and am constantly criticising myself because I feel I can improve in the manner I work. I was fortunate to be mentored by a brilliant coach and person named Jan Versleijen (Dutch coach working in the Chinese Super League) and although I am very much my own person with my own style having someone like Jan amongst others provided me with the education that has seen me now develop into the coach & person that I am now at the age of 32.
Overall, I feel it’s the players who deserve the credit for what has transpired in this tournament. They are the ones who go out and execute what has been taught and they have been very courageous in their personalities and this is reflected in their football style. The players deserve all the praise.
From the time you took over, how have the boys responded?
There’s no denying they were a bit cautious initially. After all, they have played in a different style till now and always I maintain this is no disrespect to the past. It was my job to convince them and build up a perception about our new style of play. Once convinced, I saw them enjoying the practice sessions. They are a more positive lot now.
It also reflects in the results so far. We have scored 11 goals in the five matches we have played and they have come against Nations who are ranked way higher than India. We are not finished yet though!
You have played different Playing XIs in different matches and there have even been as many as five changes in the Playing XI from the last match. Is this a conscious decision?
You need to approach every match with a different strategy as every team possess a different tactical approach. Therefore in every game, I need to look at the areas where we might need a different quality in the position both because there is either a weakness or strength from the opponent.
Also when you play 5 games in 11 days you need to utilise your whole squad. We have depth in the bench at the moment and the players are quite comfortable to change in situations because in the training preparation we consistently worked on all players understanding the whole system. It’s flexible.
The bulk of this team come from Pailan Arrows. How much does it help considering you will shift base to Pailan for the I-League and other tournaments?
It’s a huge positive. At the moment I have concentrated on the U-22 Championship but from the corner of my eye that fact that 17 players out of this bunch of 23 come of Pailan, obviously means a lot. For this tournament I haven't had the time to work on many of the individual characteristics of some of our players because team concepts outweigh the individual. In Pailan we will have this opportunity and I expect to see much more development in the players over the course of the I-League season.
By Nilanjan Datta