After a span of seven long years the Indian Football team is finally going to participate in the AFC Asian Cup where they have been scheduled alongside hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand. The biggest football tournament in Asia is going to be held at the United Arab Emirates from January 5 to February 1.
In 2011 when India last participated in this tournament they suffered a heavy defeat in the hands of Australia, Korea Republic and Bahrain. They were unable to qualify for the next edition held in 2015 and have finally made it to the 2019 edition.
“[Back then] we had never been on such a big stage and it didn’t help to face Australia, Korea and Bahrain; we gave our best but I think we were a bit overwhelmed,” Indian captain Sunil Chhetri told the-afc.com.
“If we compare ourselves with the other Asian countries then we fall short, but if we compare with what we were 15 years back then I think we have made huge strides. “But because we’re chasing the bigger teams, we can’t be happy or satisfied, we have to keep our heads down and keep improving,” he added.Indeed times have changed with the rise of Indian football making great strides in the world domain. With the birth of the Indian Super League which has attracted the interests of many global superstars, the rise in the level of play has been observed. But the preparations leading to the Asian Cup has been rather paltry.
In the last three windows, The Indian football contingent have so far played only two practice matches. The first match against China was a creditable 0-0 draw while the second against Jordan was a 1-2 loss away from home. The Jordan loss was marred with controversies with players arriving at Jordan in the last moment.
The Indian Football team ranked 15th in Asia and 97th in the world, neither have a robust domestic league structure in which players would play at least 30-40 games a season nor do they participate frequently in international tournaments contrary to their counterparts participating in the tournament.
Statistically, India is among the bottom three teams out of the 24 that are participating at the Asian Cup that have played the least number of friendlies; tied with Yemen (two) and Turkmenistan(zero). India did, however, participate in the regional South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship in Bangladesh in September where the senior players were rested.
On paper, it was Team India that participated but head coach Stephen Constantine had selected an Under-23 squad, out of which only Subhasish Bose and Anirudh Thapa were members of the senior team. India was supposed to play a friendly against Saudi Arabia but that too had to be called off owing to India's insistence of playing at home.
A footballing extravaganza like the Asian Cup demands a lot of challenges which include top quality opposition and consistent pressure of performing. But the most important among them is the test of a team's consistency and fitness in such a tournament. When one compares the preparation of the Indian team to the other participants the disparity is painstakingly huge. Teams like Thailand (who are in India's group), have played three matches in just nine days between 17th and 25th November as part of their AFF Championship commitments. Collectively India's other counterparts in the group have played 15 friendlies till November for as preparation for the tournament.
The Philippines, who are the first-time entrants in the Asian Cup, are scheduled to play 13 games in the period from September to January. This includes their games in the ongoing ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Cup and potential semifinals and finals. In fact, they have lined up a game with Vietnam in Qatar on 31st of December 2018.
Another example of accumulating precious game time as preparation for the first team would be the Vietnamese FA after a rather dry period in September. Their participation in the AFF Cup also guarantees them four competitive plus two and/or four knockout games.
Intense preparation in a short span of time helps teams cope up with the pressure of the tournament where matches of high intensity have been crunched into a short duration. The physical fitness, as well as the mental strength, are put to test in such times. If Stephen Constantine wants his team to perform at an optimum level, he needs to be aware of how to conserve their fitness and know when to push themselves hard given the situation demands.
That aspect would have been boosted if India had been ready to play at least two games in the past international window against quality oppositions. India did play the Intercontinental Cup but everyone knew the teams who participated where B and C teams of Kenya and New Zealand were involved.
The national camp for the Asian Cup starts from 17th December in New Delhi but by that time, Yemen, would have doubled their count of friendlies by four matches as they have games with Tajikistan and Palestine lined up in Qatar.
One can only hope that this lack of friendly matches does not come back to bite India hard in the Asian Cup. The Indian team have broken into the top-100 in FIFA rankings but are still not utilising all the international breaks available to them.Published 26 Nov 2018, 10:34 IST