BENGALURU: A year ago, India’s rise in FIFA rankings sparked optimism that the team placed 97th can not only qualify for the Asian Cup, but also surprise a few stronger nations. While qualification was made easier by the tournament’s expansion to 24 teams, surprising a few appears to have come a difficult task.
The ranking mechanism didn’t help India get an easy draw. Instead, they have been clubbed with hosts UAE in Group A, along with Thailand and Bahrain. Although the last two are ranked below India, those who follow Asian football will know what India are getting into. The last match India played, in Kyrgyzstan, ended in a 1-2 loss. The setback in Sunil Chhetri’s absence ended a 13-match unbeaten run.
For India’s No 1 goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, that game was a lesson. “The result was unfortunate and an opportunity for us to do well in Sunil bhai’s absence. We didn’t have the best conditions. A goal was disallowed and some decisions did not go in our favour. But we learnt a lot. It was a tough match, but we have the potential to get good results against a team like that.”Now that the Asian Cup draw is out, the Blue Tigers know what to expect. Gurpreet believes with proper preparation and by playing against stronger teams, India can challenge Thailand (122), Bahrain (116) and UAE (81).
“The draw is not as bad. But for sure, teams like them are good and competitive. We need good preparation throughout the year,” he said. “We need to make sure we play more games, get results, keep our heads down and make our team strong. We have to use every single FIFA international window from now until the beginning of the Asian Cup.”
Playing against stronger teams will be good, although it’s not clear yet as to what kind of friendly matches All India Football Federation (AIFF) will be able to organise. However, the Intercontinental Cup starting on June 1 could be a blessing. India play South Africa (72), New Zealand (133) and Chinese Taipei (121), who have agreed on sending their first teams, according to AIFF.
“Any number of matches before the Asian Cup, especially with teams like South Africa and New Zealand, will help us. Chinese Taipei are good too. We have to make sure we use the opportunity well. We will be tested. But we can’t stop at that. This tournament is an opportunity to make sure we prepare in the best way, start off right for the Asian Cup and follow the pattern for the rest of the year.”