With a football resume stretching back over 20 years, the 13 February 2017 will be a date Shalen Lal will remember for a long time to come.
On Sunday he will add national team head coach to his list of achievements when he leads the Fiji U-17 in their opening match of the OFC U-17 Championship at Stade Pater in Tahiti.
Lal has assisted in multiple national team campaigns and played the head coach role for top Fiji club Ba FC in the past, but having full responsibility of a national youth team has been a totally new experience.
“It’s a great feeling leading the team. I’ve enjoyed coaching for the past three years or so, assisting for the U-20s and the World Cup and also coaching the district team and preparing them for the Champions League,” he said.
“Here I have been given full ownership of the team and it’s very different to being with a team that I’m just assisting. Here I have to step up and choose what is best for the team. I’ve also become quite a father figure to the boys because they’re at such a young age.
The appointment has given Lal the opportunity to contribute something back to his country while progressing in his own career, and the former national player couldn’t be more proud.
“It has definitely helped in my personal development, and it’s an honour leading the young boys that will be Fiji’s footballers in the future.”
“My passion, my life for 20 years has been football. From primary school age to representing the nation as a player, and now to representing the nation as a coach. It’s marvellous.”
Lal hasn’t been completely alone in his journey with the U-17 side, with Yogendra Dutt his right hand man and technical advisor, as well as the strong team of staff helping him in his personal development throughout the Fiji side’s year-long preparation.
“Having my superiors with me and my technical advisor Yogendea, who was my coach when I was playing, working with me and sharing the same perspective on football, it makes me feel good that I can see the game like they do. We’re working on the same page,” he said.
“I still have a lot to learn but I think if I continue in the same form, I will be able to develop a lot more players for Fiji.”
Lal also credits his personal development as a coach to the experience he gained while completing his OFC B Licence.
“It was an eye opener to everything in football. When I first started out in my C License, I didn’t know much about this side of football, the set-up of the teams and understanding players and all the attributes that a coach needs to have,” he said.
“Going through the B License has totally changed the way I think about football and it has shown me how I should be thinking about football and what I can do for the players, in particular improving their technical abilities.”
Lal plans to continue his development as a coach and pick up his OFC A Licence as his next project, but that personal goal has been put on hold while he focuses all his energy on his young side’s success at the OFC U-17 Championship.
“The boys are eagerly awaiting to play but I’ve had to tell them to hold their horses. Every day is a new day, in the training sessions some days they’re up and some days they tend to go down so I’m trying to keep them focused,” he said.
“They’ve been working hard for the whole year and are looking forward to the first game, but I don’t want to pressure them in the first game, I want them to enjoy the football environment when they’re on the pitch and keep to what we’ve been doing throughout the year.”
“We’re going to take it one game at a time. Our focus now is on Solomon Islands.”
Lal will make his national team head coach debut when Fiji take on Solomon Islands in their first match of the 2017 OFC U-17 Championship at Stade Pater in Tahiti at 7pm (local time) on 12 February.