The Blue Tigers have their work cut out as they return to Asian football’s top table after a gap of eight years.
Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter once termed India as the “sleeping giant” of world football. In an attempt to live up to that tag, India have made progress in the FIFA rankings over the last 18 months. Coming into this draw for the Asian Cup in 2019, the Blue Tigers would have had reason to believe that they could compete at the top level in Asia.
However, when Sunil Chhetri picked out the first ball from Pot 3, few would have expected that he would pick India to be placed into a Group A which already had Bahrain and were soon to be joined by Thailand and hosts UAE.
Both Chhetri and the fans alike would be under no illusion that this group would be extremely difficult to navigate out of, but given India’s form in the last few months, much hope still exists. Considering that Stephen Constantine has a pipeline of fresh talent that he needs to take a closer look at and with Chhetri setting new standards and fitness and will power for the team, India will go all in when the ball is kicked in January next year.
In the other groups, defending champions Australia were drawn with Jordan, Palestine and Syria in Group B while traditional heavyweights such as Korea Republic were pitted against China, debutants Philippines and Kyrgyz Republic in Group C.
Neighbours Iraq and Iran will be fighting to qualify from their groups against Yemen and Vietnam in Group D while DPR Korea will do battle against Lebanon, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. World Cup regulars Japan will be heavily favoured to top their group which consists of Turkmenistan, Oman and Uzbekistan.
With a new trophy designed by the finest silversmith in the world, a new ball by Japanese manufacturer Molten and a prize of USD 5m up for grabs for the winner, the Asian Cup has taken its next big step in tapping the world on the shoulder and making them take notice of Asian football.
To echo the words of Chhetri himself before the draw began, “Enormous opportunity and challenge for us. It is exciting for us and we will make sure we put on a show.” The captain may have just spoken the right words that represent the tournament itself.