Tryst with destiny for Indian national football team
Tension and anticipation are rising as the Indian national football team prepares itself for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 1 encounter against Nepal on March 12 and 17.
The qualifiers against Nepal will be Stephen Constantine's first assignment since taking over the job as the Indian national coach for the second time. But Stephen will be up against various challenges and the expectations are high as fans and media hope for a comfortable win against the neighbours.
But the sad reality is that the Indian national team has to cope with a loss of quality and a historic all-time low in the FIFA World Rankings. India is ranked joint 171st in the world together with arch-rivals Pakistan in a ranking which has a total of 209 countries competing for the spots.
From the highs of the Asian Cup to the current lows
Team India had its climax in the recent years when a Bob Houghton-coached side qualified for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar and deservedly raised a cheer from the football world despite going down to Asian powerhouses Australia, Korea Republic and Bahrain in the finals. Fans were disappointed based on the results they had to cope with, but experts had justifiably a different view about it as they rated the performance in an overall context.
The form went down after the AFC Asian Cup and the national team looked like regressing rather than progressing. Stephen Constantine has now been given the task to get the Indian team back on track, after the Dutch experiment with Wim Koevermans didn't go well.
Nepal will be the first hurdle to take for the new-look Indian team. Fans, media and anyone involved in Indian football won't like to hear the fact that we will face a tough opponent in Nepal. There were times India was much better than Nepal, but I feel that we need to realize that these times have gone. We need to be realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of both sides at the moment.
Stephen Constantine has called up several new players to the Indian national team scheduled to face Nepal in Guwahati and in the return leg in Kathmandu. The new squad led by Sunil Chhetri and Subrata Pal lacks international experience and Stephen has just one week time to prepare the team for the crucial matches. India played its last competitive match last November when Sunil Chhetri and Clifford Miranda secured a 2-0 win against Nepal in a friendly match in Siliguri.
The major concern remains in the defence, which could be seriously tested in the qualifiers. An on-fire Sunil Chhetri and Robin Singh up-front will be needed as always to keep India on track in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and to keep the hopes alive to reach the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. I have to admit that I feel that the qualifiers will be a 50-50 affair and that there is a very real possibility that some of our dreams could come to an end on March 17.
Stephen Constantine is the right man for the job
There were and there are still many questions from fans and media, if Stephen is the right coach for the challenge. Why didn't the All India Football Federation (AIFF) secure the services of a coach like Zico or Ricki Herbert to form a new strong Indian team? Why Stephen?
I personally feel that Stephen is the right man to rebuild the Indian national team, as we need a coach who knows India, its football, its culture and its challenges from all corners. Stephen Constantine had coached the Indian team from 2002 to 2005 and the experience from his first tenure will be vital to face the challenges in the coming weeks and months. It is this experience that coaches such as Zico and Herbert don't have and they couldn't collect during a few weeks of coaching in the Indian Super League (ISL).
The pressure on Stephen, his new coaching staff and the players is immense. India must advance to the 2nd round of the qualification while a loss would mean another step backwards. I still think positive and I hope for a good result against Nepal. But it is imperative for all of us – fans, media, officials and players – to understand and realize the challenges and the current level of the Indian team to get the most out of the upcoming matches against Nepal.
The Indian national team needs the support of all of us to take the first challenge in the qualifiers. I would like to appeal to all of you to attend the first leg in Guwahati if possible and to support the Indian team. A full capacity crowd creating a deafening cheer throughout the 90 minutes would boost the confidence of our boys and push them to a new level.
It's a tryst with destiny for the Indian national football team.