CHENNAI: The first time an Englishman took over affairs, the national football team had one of its most memorable tournaments. It was 53 years ago, and India finished runners-up to hosts Israel in the 1964 Asia Cup. In terms of talent, Harry Wright had the versatile yet skillful duo of Chuni Goswami and Jarnail Singh in the team. A lot has changed in the intervening half-century, and a dip in performances was perhaps most alarming.
But in January this year, Stephen Constantine and his boys achieved a decade-high ranking of 129. As the Blue Tigers gear up to face Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Macau in a relatively easy group in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, former captain Bhaichung Bhutia suggested it won’t be easy.
“It’s a decent draw, but all teams are good. It’s been a long time since we qualified, and we can’t take it lightly if we mean business. Though we’ve gained a lot of exposure recently, qualifying won’t be easy,” the 40-year-old told Express on Monday.
The ISL and I-League have given birth to a lot of fresh and talented youngsters — Jerry Lalrinzuala of Chennayin FC being a prime example. Constantine will have a wide range of options in all positions as he assembles a squad capable of reaching the final tournament, to be held in UAE. “We’re still experimenting, and it’ll be interesting to see how Constantine integrates newcomers. Having a lot of players is a good problem. It’ll add more depth to the squad, and competition will be high within players,” Bhutia added.
Another India great, IM Vijayan, who formed a formidable attacking partnership with Bhutia, praised Constantine and felt he was the right person to guide India. “Constantine is a good observer. Having worked with him, I feel he knows the best way to use a player,” said Vijayan.
“Sunil (Chhetri) is a fine player, and his form will be key. Also, Kerala, which hasn’t contributed many players to the national squad recently, has a reason to smile. CK Vineeth is having a good season with Bengaluru FC, and I hope he gets a chance to prove himself,” he added.
Recent performances against Laos and Puerto Rico were a positive sign. Though the team hasn’t played a single match after that, Bhutia was quick to point out the rise of Jeje Lalpekhlua. The 26-year-old, who scored in both those games, will look to continue his run of form as India look to qualify for the biggest tournament in Asia. “Jeje has been fantastic over the last year. He has been scoring and performing at the highest level for both club and country.
His partnership with Chhetri will play an integral part,” concluded the three-time Indian player of the year.