Mumbai: India's national football coach Stephen Constantine on Friday anointed towering goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu as captain for Saturday's international friendly against higher-ranked Puerto Rico at the suburban Andheri Sports Complex ground in Mumbai.
"Gurpreet Singh Sandhu will captain the team tomorrow against Puerto Rico," Constantine announced at the fag end of the pre-match media conference to give a huge boost to the 24-year-old, one of the youngest players to lead the national football team.
The elevation of Gurpreet, the only Indian playing professional football in Europe with Stabaek FC in Norway, in place of regular leader and ace striker Sunil Chhetri, means senior custodian Subrata Paul, who recently won the Arjuna award, would have to sit out.
The game against the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) rivals, the first football international to be held in this megapolis since the India versus USSR match way back in 1955, gives a chance to the national side seek to climb the FIFA ranking.
Currently India are 152 as compared to Puerto Rico's 114 and this would be the national team's fifth international game this year.
Puerto Rico squad missed their connecting flight and are to reach only this evening, it was announced, but coach Constantine brushed aside any extra advantage for India due to this late arrival of the opponents.
"They are a good side with many good players. Yeah, one may mention about their landing timing in Mumbai but you cannot take away their quality. Can you? Puerto Rico were one of the best movers in the FIFA Rankings. They are a very organised side," said Constantine.
"They love to keep the ball and play it around. They are technically very good. Once they are around the box they are very dangerous. Against USA they split open the rival defence with three touches," said the national coach.
"They have similarities with Guam. Most of their players are based in the United States. In fact they even have a team Puerto Rico FC which play in the US League. They have a number of players playing in Europe and they will be a very good side, make no mistake of that.
"They recently lost to USA 3-1. It's good to test ourselves against this kind of teams. And hopefully we will be able to pass the test," said the Englishman.
However, he also praised the new Indian side, 13 of whom are under the age of 23.
"We are trying to build a pool of players who would represent India for the next 6-7 years. In fact, we already have built a sizeable group but there will be additions," Constantine said, adding, "Today there is a healthy competition for each of the slots."
Constantine also praised Gurpreet's attitude of ‘sticking in Norway.’ "People often say he went out to play abroad. But I would say that he stayed out there and continued. And in a country like Norway it's not easy at all and this guy has been fighting it out for the last three years," he noted.
"We are very motivated to play against a side ranked 114. If you want to go higher it's important that you play against stronger sides. I would rather lose 4-0 to Iran than win 3-0 against Bhutan," Constantine said about the game against Puerto Rico.
"There will be no change to our approach. We will play the same manner we played against Iran. We will play attacking football," he said.
Chhetri, after a glance from Constantine, said he was fully fit for the game.
In defence, the team would depend upon Sandesh Jhingan and Arnab Mondal on the flanks with Narayan Das and Rino Anto being the central defenders.
The midfield is expected to be manned by Pronay Halder, the dependable Eugeneson Lyngdoh Sumeet Passi and Jackichand Singh, with Chhetri playing as a withdrawn forward behind striker Jeje Lalpekhlua.
Chhetri, the highest goal scorer for India at the international level, also praised the younger bunch of players. "There are a lot of young ones in the squad. Today's younger bunch is much aware and professional as to what they need to do," he quipped.
The match kicks off at 8 pm.