Future looks promising for Indian Football team Despite Asian Cup Disappointment
The 2019 AFC Asian Cup was a tough drive for The Indian national team as well as a learning curve for the All India Football Federation(AIFF).
The stakeholders of the Indian national team have some important decisions to make after India’s Asian Cup campaign.
With Stephen Constantine exiting the stage while the dust is still settling on India’s early group stage exit from Asian Cup, India needs to buckle up and find a positive person for the coaching position before looking into other aspects in order to keep up the promise they have shown in the last few months.
The road to Asian Cup: Constantine's success
When Stephen Constantine took over the national team job from Wim Koevermans in 2015, Indian football was on an all-time low. Koevermans' technique of ‘total football’ and ‘pass and run’ found Indian players confused most of the time.
His inability to use in hand resources and find the best man for the job left him with no sympathizers. When Koevermans left, India was languishing at the 171st position among 209 nations in the FIFA rankings. They were 35th in Asia and had an upheaval task in front of them.
Constantine came as the right man for the right moment. From June 2016, India was on a 13 game unbeaten run, which ended last year with India reaching double digits in FIFA rankings, 96.
Stephen Constantine’s road to success was not easy. When he arrived in the scene, it was a mess around Indian football. Constantine at once realized the solution to this problem is fielding more youth players.
Even after Constantine’s departure and keeping aside his results and performances, The Englishman has done tremendous work at youth level especially at U- 23 and U- 21 that cannot be ignored under any cost.
Juggling his senior team coaching duties with the U-23 squad, Constantine has turned the junior team into a reliable conveyer belt of talent for the future.
Professionalism in Indian Football
His tenure as Indian coach has seen Indian football benefit financially as well as scientifically. A high level of professionalism was introduced into Indian football with the advent of the Indian Super League and the development in sports analytics and science, an attribute which his backroom staff took advantage completely.
At the same time, there was a new wave of professionalism in the I-League. Corporate entities like Bengaluru FC, Chennai City, and NEROCA FC joined the league. Sheer professionalism and a fine urge to win saw these clubs flourish with many prominent national team players opting to play for them rather than age-old clubs.
These players later formed the core of Indian national team, the one that braved a stint at the Asian Cup.
Asian Cup failures
After a scintillating 4-1 win over Thailand in the opening match of the group stage, things went haywire for India as they lost successive matches to UAE and Bahrain.
At a time when Indian football is visible to the rest of the world, the country has continuously been touted as a 'sleeping football giant'. The Blue Tigers do have a lesson to take home after an early exit.
India put themselves up as strong contenders to qualify for the next round after their first win, which they did have in reality but once again failed due to going down too much defensive.
Speaking after the Bahrain match on whether India had played for a draw, skipper Sunil Chhetri reverted, “We weren't going for a draw. It was in the back of the mind though. As the game went by, around 70-75 minutes, the thought was to keep it like that and so we defended deeper."
Defensive issues and Lack of fitness
Now the question arises, if India did had to draw the match after 70 minutes why couldn’t they just keep the ball and pass it among themselves rather than allowing one Bahrain attack after another?
Defenders Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika were rock solid in the back to sustain Bahrain attack but there wasn’t a single ball playing midfielder to take up the load.
If the Asian Cup qualification match against Kyrgyzstan does not suffice enough to convey how much India needs to get out of the “defend in your own half” system, the Bahrain match surely does.
Does India not posses ball-playing central midfielders who can take up a pass during opponent’s pressing? The answer is yes, it does but they don’t have the consistency to perform at continent level.
India has tried Rowlin Borges, Sehnaj Singh on those positions but they have failed to rise to the occasion time and again. There are a lot of ISL clubs that fancy certain ball holding midfielders but their consistency and true form can never be judged through ISL.
Before the match against Bahrain, Halicharan Narzary said, “It is extremely difficult to play three matches in 10 days. We get a very short recovery time. All the teams are very good. So our task becomes even more difficult."
The Indian internationals do need to realize playing three games in Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League and doing the same at the international level are different. It does require a certain level of intensity and fitness when it comes to playing against Asia’s best teams.
Constantine's successor: A strategic gamble
After Constantine’s departure, the most important decision that Indian football management needs to decide upon is to appoint someone who can take forward what Constantine has started.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) cannot afford to make the same mistakes they made post-Bob Houghton era in 2011. India’s Asia Cup stint leaves them at the same crossroads like 2011.
While ace striker Sunil Chhetri might have played his last international tournament, the bulk of the Indian squad is aged between 23 to 27. A clear vision has to be adopted by the top honchos of Indian football to sustain the little momentum which has been generated of late.
What India now needs is a coach who can reap full reward from the potential at hand at first and then look for other resources.
Also, changing coaches frequently at the national level won’t help things either. The mentality of not to just defend against big oppositions needs to be imbibed deep into Indian football right from its grass root level.
The U-23 setup
Another important prospect that India needs to hold off is to focus on the young guns. Players like Anirudh Thapa, Udanta Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan, Subhashish Bose were all impressive in their first international tournament.
But their glimpses were partial and all of them were in phases. In the end, it required a brilliant Sunil Chhetri to round up their beautiful work which led to the 4-1 win.
They have a sense of raw talent both in technical and mental ability, but at the current moment, without any direction. These youngsters did put up impressive performances against Jordan, China and Oman before the Asian Cup, which led to a certain promise and faith in the young guns led by veteran skipper Sunil Chhetri.
India did have exciting prospects like Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Romeo Fernandes, Mandar Desai in the recent past courtesy to ISL, but they faded away too quickly in the international forum. Great care and attention need to be put up in nurturing these youngsters up to their full ability.
With a series of exciting fixtures scheduled from 19th March, The Blue Tigers will look forward to forgetting their Asian Cup disappointment and continue with the promise they have shown.
All said and done, when the 2023 Asian Cup knocks at India’s doors, India should be playing in it rather than reminiscing what happened in 2019. With the 2026 World Cup set to contest 48 teams, India does stand a promising chance as 8 AFC teams will be contested.
The challenge that India needs to keep from now is not to play the next Asian Cup but to progress and keep up hopes for 2026.