The Blue Tigers might have exited the tournament at the group stages but there was much to take away and build on from their outing.
The Indian football team made only their fourth appearance at the AFC Asian Cup this year, which turned out to be a historic one. The Men in Blue started with a lot of promise, thrashing Thailand 1-4 in their opening game, but they succumbed to consecutive defeats at the hands of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
As a result, the team could not make it to the knockout rounds, but that should not dent the wave of positivity that their performance in the tournament has brought to the country. Led by the insatiable Sunil Chhetri, the Indian team would have made it through to the next round, if not for a late penalty conceded by Pronay Halder, in added-time in the game against Bahrain. The team were minutes away from writing their name into Indian football folklore, but it was not to be.
Here are the five things that we learned from India’s run at the Asian Cup:
5. This is the fittest Indian team we have ever seen
Fitness is something that Indian football has lacked over the years, but it has turned out to be one of the strengths for the Blue Tigers in recent times. Majority of the credit for this must go to the Indian Super League, whose advent has taught the players many things about developing physical strength, stamina, diet regulation and mentality. Shanmughan Venkatesh and his team, who were assisting former manager Stephen Constantine, also deserve their fair share of credit for the work they have done with regards to the overall fitness of the team.
The good work done by the fitness team reflected most on the likes of Ashique Kuriniyan, Udanta Singh, Haldar and Sandesh Jhingan, all of whom impressed in the Cup. It is high time that the focus on football continues to be just as strong, if we are to challenge for top honours in Asia again in four years.
4. India need to focus more on the tactical side of the game
India’s tactics against Bahrain in the crunch final game drew ire from both fans and pundits. Constantine went with a “park-the-bus” tactic, which caused the Indian defence to invite more pressure on itself, to which they eventually succumbed.
Following the Asian Cup, it is evident that going forward, this particular strategy cannot work against any top opposition. Indian players need to learn how to express their skills on the ball, something that they did very well in the second half against Thailand. It is paramount that whoever the next coach is, his philosophy is based on possession and positive football.
3. The AFC roadmap has to be executed by the AIFF soon
The ongoing tug of war between the ISL and the I-league and the AIFF’s lack of urgency in resolving it is harming Indian football. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has laid down a clear roadmap to merge the two leagues, without affecting the integrity of the stakeholders involved and the AIFF needs to execute it at the earliest.
2. India need a visionary coach at the helm
Despite all the achievements of Constantine, it is undeniable that his brand of football was mostly bland and reactive. His selections were controversial during his tenure, especially given the fact that top performers in the likes of Michael Soosairaj, Jobby Justin and Rahul Bheke were overlooked for India’s tournament squad.
The AIFF needs to appoint a bold and visionary coach at the helm, who not only plays positive football, but is also unflinching with his selections. The likes of Albert Roca, Ashley Westwood and Derrick Pereira have been rumoured to be front runners for the job, and they would all be perfect candidates for the role.
1. The local football fandom has to grow
Indian football needs its fans now, more than ever. The Blue Tigers’ run in the Asian Cup united an entire nation over a week or so, but that fandom has to keep growing. Currently, the fans’ fraternity is limited mostly to a few pockets across the nation.
But, the efforts made by the Blue Pilgrims in order to promote the sport and develop an official supporters’ group have been extremely commendable. As Indian football enters its next exciting phase of growth, fans need to come together and support the team more than ever to ensure that it keeps improving every day.