The Indian women's national team secured its place in the second round of the 2020 Olympics qualifying tournament, despite going down to Myanmar in the final group match. With the achievement, coach Maymol Rocky and her side created history as they became the first women's side from the country to clear the first hurdle of any Olympic qualifiers.
The team finished second in its group with four points in three matches after starting its campaign with a 1-1 draw against Nepal, followed by a 7-1 demolition of Bangladesh and a narrow 2-1 loss against the hosts Myanmar. The Indian side will now join 11 other teams in the second round, which will be held in April 2019.
The mood in the team's camp was a joyous one after the feat and once the celebrations came to an end, the-aiff.com caught up with Rocky, who spoke at length about a number of things in an extensive chat.
When did the preparation for the Olympic qualifiers begin? What was the area of focus in the camp?
We started planning for this tournament more than four months ago and had an exposure trip to Spain, which was really really helpful in the team's progress. After a small break, we got together in Mumbai for the camp and it was a great mode of preparation. All the things we planned there, we were able to execute when it mattered and girls were really disciplined throughout and remained focused at the task.
Throughout the preparation, the keyword for the team from my side was 'attack'. I always prefer playing attacking football and that is the style we had in all our games in Myanmar. In order to prepare, we played against boys teams - we played U-15, U-16 and U-18 boys and continued to play attacking football. On some occasions, we lost by heavy margins to the U-18 teams but we never let go of our plan to display a positive style of football.
Do you feel the team was able to play the way you wanted them to in the tournament?
Against Nepal, we looked to play an attacking style but since it was our first match, the girls could not get the desired result as we were not good enough with our finishing. In the Bangladesh match, the girls were in high spirits before the match, remained disciplined and played exactly the way we had planned before the game, which is why we were able to record a 7-1 scoreline.
In our last match too against Myanmar, we took the game to them and played with intent. We did not get overawed by the gap in ranking between us and them and had our chances to have taken at least one point from the match.
What do you think was the biggest factor that helped you get the most out of the players in these three games?
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) provided the team with a video analyst (Mishal Thanveer) and once he joined the team in Mumbai, it really helped us to observe the girls on the pitch and identify where we were lacking and to see what we could do better.
Once we came here, I wasn't exactly sure as to how the Myanmar team would be and how they would play. We played our first match against Nepal and he analysed our performance, while also breaking down the Myanmar team's match against Bangladesh.
The games were divided into components such as build-ups, defensive shape, transitions, etc. and when we sat together and looked at the videos, I felt that we could hold our own against Myanmar and even push for a win. The video analysis also helped us explain the individual performances of the girls to them and through the visual medium, they were able to understand their roles and the matches much better than just by verbal instruction.
I feel this is a key development for women's football in the country and I would like to thank the federation for their support in this regard.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced ahead of these qualifiers?
Perhaps the biggest challenge for me was to keep the team together. We have some very experienced players in the squad as well as some very junior players - and to keep them together is difficult. However, much to their credit, all the girls in the team are soft-hearted and team-oriented individuals, which made my job much easier. The seniors played a great role in integrating the new faces into the team and once we stood together, we got the result we wanted.
Also, we changed the formation this time. Earlier, we always went for a 4-4-2 but for this tournament, we experimented with formations and the girls adapted very well to the changes. We stepped into Myanmar thinking of playing attacking football, and we did. We changed the system before the Myanmar match and the girls responded well to it.
What roles do the experienced and young players have on the pitch?
On the field, it is the experienced players who do most of the thinking part and play out the key moments of the match like an important save, tackle or pass. They are the glue that holds the team together and they manage the team on the field since my contribution from the touchline is more or less limited. Our senior players really played their roles well over the last week.
On the other hand, the youngsters are more about the passion and the aggression that they bring to the team. They play their hearts out and are excited to be on the pitch. They just want to play!
According to you, what is the magnitude of the team's most recent success? Where does it stand among the side's previous feats?
I am sure this is the greatest achievement for me and the players so far. Qualifying for the second round was something we were all looking to. This is what we had been preparing for, for a long time and we are glad we were able to achieve our objective.
Any player or players who surprised you with their performances?
(laughs) All 20 players, no doubt about that!
What's next in store for the team?
Our next step is preparing for the SAFF Women's Championships (to be held in December) and we will have a camp shortly to prepare for the tournament. We will also sit down with the management and chart out a plan for the second round of the Olympic qualifiers with exposure trips, practice matches against stronger teams and even a tournament perhaps.
Nothing is impossible for the team! We have always received great support from the federation as well as the government, and we will continue to work together to ensure the players achieve their potential and play their best. We will be prepared for the second round of the Olympic qualifiers and hope to give our 100 per cent!