China friendly a case of too little too late for India
"Of course, it is a problem (of not having enough time). We don't have much time to do what we need to do, we needed a few more days. Going forward, we need to have more time for preparation in future," said Indian National Football Team coach Stephen Constantine, as his team prepared to depart from Suzhou to take on China in an international friendly.
That brings us to a larger question about the team. Is it just preparation time for this one friendly that is an issue? Or is it preparation as a whole for the showpiece AFC Asian Cup? Before heading to the UAE in January, India are slated to play only three friendlies, with matches against Jordan and Oman to follow in the next couple of months.
India's qualification campaign for the Asian Cup ended in March, and since then there have been two windows for international friendlies. In June, the Blue Tigers played in the Intercontinental Cup - which was memorable for skipper Sunil Chhetri's 100th senior cap - featuring New Zealand, Kenya and Chinese Taipei. However, it was a second-string New Zealand side, Chinese Taipei's Under-23 side and a Kenyan side that was called up at short notice.
Although India did win that tournament, a question would have to be asked about the levels of the oppositions and how helpful that would be for Constantine as he builds the team up for the Asian Cup.
There were positives to emerge even from the Intercontinental Cup though, as several young players were given the opportunity, and some of them, particularly Subhasish Bose and Anirudh Thapa grabbed it with both hands. Thapa struck up a neat combination with Pronay Halder in midfield and seemed to develop an understanding with Chhetri as well.
That there were some important learnings from the Intercontinental Cup makes it even more bizarre that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has not taken the following international window seriously.
In September, while India's U-23 team was busy with SAFF Cup commitments, the senior team players were busy in pre-season with their respective clubs. This, when all of India's group opponents in the Asian Cup were tightening up their preparation.
UAE played Trinidad & Tobago and Laos last month. Bahrain played against China and the Phillippines, both teams which had qualified for the Asian Cup. Thailand didn't use the September window for friendlies, but now, they play Hong Kong and Trinidad & Tobago in the next week, before heading on to compete in the ASEAN Football Championship.
By the end of November, Thailand would have played seven more games than now. India would have played two.
"There will be a big stadium, big crowd but we have to play under pressure. These are the matches we need to play, to find out where we are, how good we are and how far we have to go." - Stephen Constantine
Constantine knows that India need to play these tough matches for their own progress. A friendly against China is definitely a step up from the constant clashes against Nepal, which never really gave India a sense of where they needed improvements and by how much.
The match against Jordan in November will be similar as well, so too the pre-Asian Cup friendly against Oman. But the big question that is begging to be asked is why more games haven't been scheduled. Why haven't India faced enough quality opposition in the last few years?
Getting through the qualification group is celebrated as a big achievement, but that is not the only need of the hour for Indian football. The team, as such, relies on individual quality more than they do on their ability as a unit.
Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua have pumped in the goals, but India have had little else in terms of an attacking threat. There are other holes in the squad that need to be filled as well, with a variety of places being up for grabs.
In such a scenario, it would not at all have hurt Constantine or the team to have more friendlies. Ultimately, friendlies are the stage where you can try new things. The result shouldn't matter, as long as processes are being set in place through the friendlies.
Only the powers that be know why the Blue Tigers are not playing as many games as they ought to be. An often-cited excuse is that there aren't enough quality opposition willing to play against India, but that is disillusioning considering that teams like Bahrain and Thailand have been able to convince such teams to play against them.
Whether or not it is against quality opposition, even teams that didn't make the Asian Cup such as Singapore and Malaysia have played their fair share of friendlies.
The Indian football faithful can only hope that this friendly against China is the start of the national team's fortunes actually being taken seriously by the AIFF, but there have been several false dawns already.
India are already well behind in their preparations for the Asian Cup, and although not much can be done now, it could serve as a lesson for future Indian teams and coaches. The importance of friendlies for a team like the Blue Tigers cannot be understated, and in this case, those running Indian Football will have to take the blame.