KOCHI: Miracles cannot be expected, but Indian football is heading in the right direction if the senior pros are to be believed. The India U-23 team securing its best-ever finish in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers recently justifies the belief.
“During the times when we were involved with the national team, we didn’t see a lot of football at the age-group level. Most of us would just be drafted straight into the national team when we peak. Things are changing now and these youngsters are getting the opportunity to develop as they are playing from as young as the under-17 level. We can’t expect miracles of course, but such performances are very positive going forward,” said former India international Rino Anto.
The 33-year-old who has played for some of the biggest clubs in India including the likes of Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Bengaluru FC and Kerala Blasters etc is currently with Punjab FC. He has also won some of the major titles in India like the I-League and the Federation Cup to name a few. The defender feels that the youngsters put in excellent performances against some top teams. “I think they narrowly missed out on qualification but there were some fine performances. The win against Oman stood out while the performance of the boys against Kyrgyzstan was also impressive,” he said.
India managed to pip Kyrgyzstan in the shootout as they finished second in the group. The top teams from each group qualify while the best four teams who finished second will also go through for the main event which will be held next year. India now have an anxious wait to see if they can still qualify.
Rino believes that qualifying for the Asian Cup would have been a huge achievement but the performance of the youngsters deserve a lot of credit. “I think ever since the Under-17 World Cup was held in India, grassroots football has come under focus and we are seeing youngsters get a lot more exposure than before. We are able to confidently compete against higher ranked teams and this bodes well for the future. It is about taking one step at a time,” he added.
The likes of Vikram Pratap Singh drew praise for his performance as some of the ISL regulars like Apuia, Dheeraj Singh and Suresh Singh have also been getting the chance to get vital game time. A big question that still haunts Indian football is surrounding the future of the team once Sunil Chhetri hangs up his boots. When asked if any of the upcoming players can fill the boots of Chhetri over time, Rino feels that the players need game time above everything else.