With an eye on the next three matches to secure a berth in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, Indian national team defender Sandesh Jhingan believes that the Blue Tigers need to be a regular fixture in Asia's showpiece football tournament to achieve the "ultimate dream" of playing in the FIFA World Cup.
The Sunil Chhetri-led side will lock horns with Cambodia in the first of their three final round Qualifiers on Wednesday (June 8) at Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium. The pre-match press conference on Tuesday was attended by Jhingan alongside head coach Igor Stimac.
Asked about the significance of the three fixtures, the experienced centre-back highlighted his team's ambitions and said:
"Everyone wants to be in the World Cup. Everyone is a football fan and player. To reach that level, we need to be regulars in the Asian Cup. I am not saying it is easy, but it should mean without a doubt that India should always be in the Asian Cup. It will be the first stepping stone towards realizing the ultimate dream."
India are chasing a fifth appearance in the Asian Cup finals tournament. They aim to qualify for back-to-back Asian Cups for the first time ever. The Blue Tigers have featured in the 1964, 1984, 2011, and 2019 editions in the past.
"The youngsters are doing really well, especially Liston. He deserves everything that he has got now. He has a very long way ahead and I am sure he will do well. He has that hunger in him. When you start to do well, the world around comes to you, but he has kept his humility intact. A lot of new players will come, so you need to keep working hard. That is the one thing I really admire about Liston."
Jhingan, who has established himself as the national team's defensive mainstay since making his debut in 2015, also pinned his hopes on the other youngsters in the side. The former Kerala Blasters and Bengaluru FC star said:
"Not only Liston [Colaco], Roshan [Singh] had a fantastic season too. I've also seen Manvir [Singh] grow. A lot of young players dream big and work hard. It's a long road, so you've got to keep learning. The same goes for me as well. I am 28 and I can't say I have reached my peak yet. The idea is to improve all the time, do well for our clubs, contribute to the national team and help India reach greater heights, so all our fans can be happy."
After the match against Cambodia, India will face Afghanistan and Hong Kong in Group D on June 11 and June 14, respectively. All matches will be played at the hallowed Salt Lake Stadium. Jhingan is excited at the prospect of qualifying for the Asian Cup in front of home fans. He remarked:
"Football is all about supporters and playing in front of passionate supporters is what we dreamt of when we were little boys, representing the national side in front of packed stadiums - it's the stuff of dreams. The more fans come, the merrier. It will give us a push and extra motivation. The significance of going to the Asian Cup is massive and getting it done on your home soil in Kolkata will be a privilege."
While India bowed out of the race to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar back in 2019, they hope to make it to the quadrennial global event in 2026, when the tournament will be expanded to 48 teams, featuring eight from Asia.