Facing continental heavyweights like Bahrain and UAE is a tough ask but Indian national football coach Stephen Constantine is confident that Sunil Chhetri and his men won’t just be going there to make up the numbers during next year’s Asian Cup.
In their last appearance in the Asian Cup in 2011, India, coached by Briton Bob Houghton, were comprehensively beaten by Australia, South Korea and Bahrain but Constantine feels things will be different this time round.
India have been clubbed with Thailand, hosts UAE and Bahrain in Group A in the 24-team tournament to be held from January 5 to February 1.
Two top teams from each of the six groups and four best third-placers will advance to the knock-out Round of 16.
India play Thailand in the opening match in Abu Dhabi on January 6 followed by matches against UAE on January 10 (at Abu Dhabi) and against Bahrain on January 14 (at Sharjah).
“I feel we have a decent chance to do that (to qualify for knock-out rounds) but we will need to be ready both mentally and physically. Thailand in the opener is a going to be a good game. We are going there to win and not to make up the numbers,” Constantine told PTI in an exclusive interview.
As part of preparations for the Asian Cup, India is hosting a four-team Intercontinental Cup starting in Mumbai from June 1. Chinese Taipei, Kenya and New Zealand are the other three teams in the tournament.
“We need these games we are coming up (in the Intercontinental Cup). We will make mistakes but it is better to make them now than in the Asian Cup,” said the 55- year-old, who is in his second stint as India coach.
The current Indian side is a totally different from the one that played in the Asian Cup in 2011 in Doha and current captain Sunil Chhetri is the only player, who was a part of that earlier team.
Chhetri, the seniormost and star player of the team, is expected to play in his 100th match for India in the Intercontinental Cup. He is now on 97 international matches.
He is also set to become the only Indian player to feature in an Asian Cup twice provided veteran Subrata Paul is not selected.
Asked about Chhetri’s contribution in the game in the country, Constantine said,”It will be a remarkable achievement (when Chhetri plays his 100th match). He has been a great servant to Indian football.”
Legendary Bhaichung Bhutia is the only Indian player till now to have played in 100 matches for the country.
Constantine earlier served as India head coach from 2002 to 2005 and returned to the country again to take the reigns of the team in March 2015 for his second stint. His contract with the Indian team will run till the end of the Asian Cup. He is the longest serving foreign coach of the Indian team.
“Every time I represent India, it is a test we have come a long way since I arrived for my second tenure and I am immensely proud of our achievements with this team. Surely it will be the biggest tournament (2019 Asian Cup) India has participated in since the last time eight years ago but we are going to be ready for the challenge and make India proud,” he said.
India were struggling at 173rd spot in the FIFA rankings when Constantine took charge in March 2015. What followed was a dream run as India broke into the top 100 for the first time in 21 years and the team under him had a 13-match unbeaten run from June 2016 to March this year.
India is now ranked 97th and the team is ranked higher than all the other three in the Intercontinental Cup — Chinese Taipei (121), Kenya (111) and New Zealand (133).
Talking about the Intercontinental Cup, Constantine said, “Playing against teams who have players playing in European Leagues or Leagues that are lot stronger than ours is a great way of gaining invaluable experience and these are the type of games we need to be playing if we are going to get better ourselves.”
South Africa (currently ranked 72nd) made a late pull-out from the tournament and Kenya was roped in as a replacement. Constantine said he was not disappointed at South Africa’s pull-out as Kenya is also a strong team.
“No, it is not a factor for me. South Africa is a good team but Kenya is also very good and either of those teams would be a big test for us. In fact, any team coming from Africa would be difficult for us,” he said.
Asked if the all the three countries will send their best teams, Constantine said, “I can’t really answer that until they are here but it is not a FIFA window and I would imagine all the teams may have some players that are not able to commit. But we will see, regardless of who comes, they will be very good games for us and the experience invaluable to our development and preparation before the Asian Cup.”
India play Chinese Taipei in their opening match on June 1 and the East Asians are 24 places lower than Constantine’s side in FIFA rankings and India have beaten them thrice while drawing once in the four matches played in the past decade.
“I am not one for records as teams and players change all the time and they (Chinese Taipei) will be coming to try and beat us. Under Gray White, they have improved and will be very organised. We will show them the respect they deserve, but of course winning the game is our aim.