In June 2015, I sat in the West Block at Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium as India took on Oman in the second round of qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup. The Indian Super League had taken off a few months earlier and there was excitement and mild optimism about our chances. Nepal had been disposed of in the first round and over 19000 fans filled the stadium for the group opener.
In a performance full of heart but lacking quality, the Blue Tigers ended up losing 1-2. That was as good as it got for India as they proceeded to lose seven out of eight games, including an ignominious defeat to Guam, then ranked 174 in the world. It was a brutal reality check for the side and a reminder of just how much work needed to be done before India could make a sustained push for a spot in the third round of Asian qualifiers, leave alone the World Cup.
The silver lining was in the unearthing of players like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Sandesh Jhingan, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Rowllin Borges, Pritam Kotal and Pranoy Halder, who would play an important role for coach, Stephen Constantine, in building a team around talisman, Sunil Chhetri. Three more editions of the ISL came and went, each one providing Constantine with more players to embellish his squad with, and India went on a 13-match unbeaten run that began immediately after that disastorous World Cup qualification campaign. It started in June 2016 with the first playoff round for AFC Cup qualification against Laos and only ended after the goal had been achieved, with an away loss at Kyrgyzstan in an inconsequential game in March 2018.
In Flying Goalie’s 2017 year-end review, I had mentioned that India was artificially maintaining her rating by picking and choosing its opponents outside AFC Cup competitions. Thankfully, the AIFF got out of that habit this year by attempting to provide decent competition at the inaugural InterContinental Cup. Even more heartening was the scheduling of friendlies against China and Jordan, albeit with January’s AFC Cup in mind. A second-string side packed with promising youngsters was sent to Bangladesh for the SAFF Cup in what will hopefully be the trend going forward.
The InterContinental Cup was a great success and the Blue Tigers played with confidence and verve rarely associated with the team. Weakened teams of various degrees were sent by Kenya and New Zealand, but India’s title win will make future opposition warier about choosing that path. Sunil Chhetri scored eight goals in four matches and showed that the old warrior still had some fight left in him, but his most telling contribution was possibly in a video to the fans that went viral after India’s first match, when only 2569 spectators turned up to watch the side win 5-0 against Chinese Taipei.
All remaining matches featuring India were sell-outs, but it is quite disheartening that international football does not automatically guarantee crowds in this country. India played all their remaining engagements away starting with the SAFF Cup. India lost the final to Maldives after beating all comers, including the eventual champions, in previous rounds but that should not deter us from continuing with the approach. Several fringe players got valuable playing time, with the likes of Ashique Kuruniyan and Manvir Singh doing especially well.
India’s biggest tests only arrived towards the end of the year, with the friendlies against China and Jordan. The side acquitted themselves well in both matches, even though Constantine seems to believe that sitting deep and playing on the break suits the team more against better opposition. It will be interesting to see if the same strategy will be employed in the AFC Cup, especially since India showed glimpses of what she could do in opposition halves if the hand brake were released a bit.
India’s final international of the year, played last night in Abu Dhabi and fittingly against Oman again, provided a few clues. The Blue Tigers are a far better side today than the one that took the Arab side on in 2015. In Bengaluru, Chhetri seemed to be the only one who could rise to an occasion, as his wonder goal demonstrated. The class of 2018 have added a few more strings to their bow and the team gave a good account of themselves in a 0-0 draw against the current Gulf Cup holders who were on a 12-match unbeaten run which included a win against Saudi Arabia.
An exciting 2019 beckons, starting with the Asian Cup next weekend. We have one draw to show for in that tournament since 1964. Any improvement on that dismal record would indicate progress and provide a young team with the belief required to compete at the highest level.