A group of 24 men, in their India blue jerseys, went through the paces at the Mumbai Football Arena last week. Even as life continued as usual in one of Mumbai’s busiest suburbs, the Indian national team trained at the Andheri Sports Complex’s football pitch.
Stripped of the glamour of the big-bucks Indian Super League (ISL) or the partisanship that some of the legacy clubs attract in the I-League, Indian football continues its arduous climb without much notice.
The team’s week-long camp, however, was in preparation for one of their most important international assignments. The World Cup is a dream too far for this generation of Indian football players, but the national team is looking to take a step ahead on the continental level—in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, starting with the 28 March game against Myanmar in Yangon.
“The last time we played there was a qualifier and we lost and it dashed our dreams,” says captain Sunil Chhetri of India’s 0-1 defeat in Myanmar during their 2015 Asian Cup qualification campaign.
“We talk about playing the World Cup, this is the real benchmark. First, make sure we qualify for the Asian Cup, because then you know you are improving. That dip (in 2015) wasn’t great. Now we have a great chance to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup. This is it.”
Established in 1956, the AFC Asian Cup is the second oldest continental tournament after Copa América. It is to Asia what the Euros are to Europe. Even though India won a silver medal in 1964, when most countries refused to participate in the tournament held in Israel, the country has only made it to the main rounds sporadically. The last time they competed was in 2011, when they went up against three of the strongest sides in the competition: Australia, South Korea and Bahrain.
But they failed to keep up the momentum, missing out on the 2015 tournament, and have endured some tough times since. In the World Cup qualifiers for the 2018 finals in Russia, India finished last in their group and seemingly hit a new low when they lost 1-2 to the tiny island nation of Guam.
Stephen Constantine had been appointed coach in 2015, just ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign. He was at the helm as the Indian team went through a period of transition, handing debuts to as many as 29 players.
“Was that ideal? No,” says Constantine. “But those boys now have invaluable experience. In the first round of qualifiers, we learnt how to compete because we were not competing against anybody two years ago. We couldn’t even beat Nepal. So in these games, we learnt how to compete. This year we have to learn how to qualify. We have to play smart.”
Some of those players have now become crucial cogs in the Indian wheel. Midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh and defender Sandesh Jhingan are the standouts. Though striker Jeje Lalpekhlua did not debut under Constantine, he has blossomed in the past couple of seasons as one of India’s most reliable strikers.
In the third round of the Asian Cup, India, ranked 132, have a favourable draw at least on paper: They have been grouped with Myanmar (ranked 172), Kyrgyzstan (125) and Macau (184).
“On paper, it’s not bad, it could have been worse, but we got to do it out there and for that we need to prepare here and get ourselves in the right position to qualify,” says Constantine. “But it won’t be easy. I remember everyone saying that Guam was easy, but Guam play with nine US-based players. It’s a much better level than we have.”
For the coach, two of the biggest worries are fitness and chemistry. The players have gone through a long domestic season, starting with the ISL in October, and have not played enough international games to forge a strong bond and understanding. India’s last international fixture was in September, when they toppled the higher-ranked but much depleted Puerto Rico to gain vital ranking points on the Fifa charts.
“The (players’) fitness does not match up. But we don’t have access to players, so obviously when they go back to clubs, it’s a different level,” Constantine adds. “It is difficult to have them once in every two or three months (for national camps/tournaments).”
They will play a friendly game against Cambodia in Phnom Penh on 22 March before heading to Yangon.
“We are ready to fight,” says Chhetri. “We are 19th in Asia; our target is to reach the first 12. That’s the realistic goal. We can never say we are ready and ‘bring it on’…. Right now, we just have to keep our heads down and keep improving.”
Goalkeepers: Subrata Paul, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, T.P. Rehenesh
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Nishu Kumar, Sandesh Jhingan, Arnab Mondal, Anas Edathodika, Dhanpal Ganesh, Fulganco Cardozo, Narayan Das, Jerry Lalrinzuala
Midfielders: Jackichand Singh, Udanta Singh, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Milan Singh, Mohammed Rafique, Rowllin Borges, Holicharan Narzary, C.K. Vineeth
Forwards: Jeje Lelkephlua, Sunil Chhetri, Daniel Lalhlimpuia, Robin Singh.