MUMBAI: Manager Stephen Constantine sat flanked by the present and the future of Indian football. Sunil Chhetri, the diminutive attacker, who has bossed football fields around the country and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the big-built goalkeeper, who is digging the Indian flag deep into foreign territory. With Mumbai hosting its first international since 1955, and a young side at his disposal, Constantine has put the future firmly in focus.
Gurpreet, who recently took over from Subrata Paul as India’s first-choice goalkeeper, will lead the team when they take on higher-ranked Puerto Rico in a friendly game at Mumbai’s Andheri Sports Complex on Saturday evening. The 6’5” goalkeeper has been plying his trade in Norway, with their top-flight team Staebek, since 2014 and in June became the first Indian to play in the Europa League.
“It is a young team, the average age of the side is around 23,” said Constantine in a pre-match media meet in the city on Friday. “The squad we have gathered at the moment should be around for the next five-six years.”
The Blue Tigers are a team in transition; thirteen of the 27 members of the current squad are under the age of 23, and by all accounts, making quick progress. Though India are already out of contention for the 2018 World Cup, their next major target will be making the cut for the Asian Cup. The third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers will be held in March 2017.
“It is a talented squad,” said Chhetri, “But I wouldn’t like to compare it with the earlier Indian teams.” Chhetri has been training in the past week in Mumbai with a brace on his wrist, but both him and the coach believe that he will be fit to play Puerto Rico, who at 114 are 41 places above India in the FIFA rankings. “The younger players coming into the squad are better prepared than what we used to be,” added Chhetri, “But there is still a little disparity as far as the set-up in the club and country goes. Not all Indian clubs have the basics, like having a nutritionist, in place and that is the only missing link.”
With Indian football ambitions looking for a reset, Constantine, who is in his second stint as the India manager, added that this was the first time that he had multiple quality choices for almost every position. “It has become a headache for me, but is a good problem to have,” the Englishman said.
It is a given that teams like India need to go up against bigger and better teams to test and challenge themselves. And though the Puerto Rican team has a strong set-up to back them, how prepared they will be for the short Indian sojourn remains to be seen. The visitors landed in Mumbai on Friday evening, after an almost 24-hour journey and are bound to be travel-fatigued and jet-lagged for the match.
“We hope so,” joked Constantine. “They have to deal with the situation. It’s not my problem. But tired or not they are a good team, with some very good players. Their team also plays in the NASL (second division American Soccer League) and will be tough to beat.” Whatever the match-readiness of their opponents, it will test just how ready India are to take the next step towards a better future.