Bibiano Fernandes has led the Indian U-16 national team to the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Championship for the second time in a row.
His troops were very close to sealing a berth in the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup last time out. India conceded a late goal against South Korea in the quarterfinals of the 2018 AFC U-16 finals which ultimately cost them a spot in the U17 World Cup.
The Goan spoke to Goal after a successful campaign that saw India reach the 2020 AFC U-16 Championship with an unbeaten record and a goal difference of +10.
"Yes," was Fernandes' instant reaction when asked if he is tagetting the 2021 U-17 World Cup through a top four finish in the AFC U16 finals next year.
The former East Bengal midfielder went on to even state that India can reach the levels of South Korea or defending AFC U-16 champions Japan.
"There is a one-year period of preparations towards the championship. Definitely, if we put up an aggressive plan towards this team, I'm sure our level will go close to that of Japan and South Korea. So we will be putting a plan in place and soon we will start working with this team," he said.
Speaking of the 11-match winning streak going into the AFC U-16 qualifiers, he reflected, "That was the motivation. We knew that it would be difficult here, especially playing against Uzbekistan at (their) home. But I knew that the boys would perform well in the AFC (U-16) qualifiers and prove that India is doing a great job back home at the grassroots level. I would like to thank everyone involved."
The journey, as Fernandes recalls, was all about the AIFF's (All India Football Federation) vision through their scouting programs and the exposure trips facilitated by the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
"Last year's staff is the same and we knew exactly what kind of players we would need for the qualifiers and the Championship next year. We knew where to start. In scouting, assistant Kanan (Priolkar), Felix (D'Souza) and head of scouting Vikram (Nanivadekar) did a great job. We gave them an idea of what kind of players we needed and we also went around (scouting). So with the kind of players that we wanted, we knew how we would be training them," he explained.
"At the same time, SAI also helped us with the exposure trips. This kind of exposure helps open up some of the players who are coming from a very reserved background and to build their self-confidence when we start winning matches."
The 42-year-old also looked back at his connection with his assistant Kanan Priolkar during his player-cum-coaching days at Santa Cruz Club and sharing the dressing room with Felix D'Souza during his time at Sporting Clube de Goa.
"That connection was there and after three years of being together, this year it didn't take much time for us to start because everything was in sync. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to understand a new staff but since we have been working together before, it was very important," Fernandes admitted.