CHENNAI: It’s a debate which should be pretty familiar to fans of Indian football. As India prepare to take on China in an international friendly on Saturday, the quantity and quality of the matches that the national team plays is once again a talking point.“We need more matches like this,” is pretty much the song on everybody’s lips ahead of the game. That India last met China 21 years ago, is a reflection of the national team’s limited playing time over the years.
Friendly matches have been scarce, those against top teams from the continent scarcer still. As a result, India has, more often than not, looked unprepared when facing a big name in a match of consequence. The World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Iran and Oman are recent examples.
There is every reason to fear that might be the case when India line up at the Asian Cup in January, despite the matches they will play in the run-up to it because two months of good preparation cannot possibly compensate for two years of sitting out on most friendly dates.
Compare India’s build-up to the Cup with that of Bahrain — the lowest-ranked of the three teams it will face in the group stages. Since the start of 2017, India’s senior team has played four friendlies (Mauritius, St Kitts & Nevis, Bhutan and Puerto Rico), four games in the Intercontinental Cup in June against Chinese Taipei and what were essentially reserve sides of Kenya and New Zealand and six Asian Cup qualifiers.
In the same period, Bahrain have played nine international friendlies against the likes of China, Syria and Jordan, four games against various international club sides and four Gulf Cup matches against Iraq, Oman and Qatar, apart from the Asian Cup qualifiers. Not only have Bahrain played much more, they have played better teams.
“It’s strange that we are playing them after so long. We should have played them more often,” said India’s record goal-scorer Sunil Chhetri. “That’s going to be the perfect challenge that we need to assess ourselves. We have done well in the last couple of years but now it’ll help us gauge ourselves before the Asian Cup.”
It is a sentiment echoed by his former teammate Gouramangi Singh. “It’s a great opportunity for the youngsters to play a team like China,” he said. “You have to keep playing the big teams to progress. I wish they played more regularly against teams from the Middle East as well.”
While China’s current ranking of 72 is only 8 places away from their worst-ever mark, their standing in the Asian scene and the presence of a World Cup-winning coach in Marcelo Lippi enhances the stature of the occasion for India. More big games are incoming with the All India Football Federation confirming a game against Saudi Arabia and negotiating one more with Jordan. The key, though, would be doing it even when there is no Asian Cup on the horizon. Another 21 years for a game like this would be too long a wait.