Asian Cup appearances for India have been hard to come by. In the 60-year history of Asia's biggest football competition, India have been involved just thrice. So an opportunity to rub shoulders with heavyweights of Asian football is worth its weight in gold for 'The Blue Tigers'.
In 2019, when the continental championship hits the Arabian shores, India will get a fourth shot at making its presence felt at the pinnacle of Asian football. Barring a runners-up finish in 1964 — an edition that had just 4 teams competing — India have returned from Asian Cups winless, at times even without scoring a goal. History suggests that once failed, there is no chance for redemption for the fallen, as by the time the next chance comes along, the careers of most of the players previously involved in an Asian Cup may lie deep in history.
Bhaichung Bhutia, arguably India's greatest footballer ever, was lucky enough to be still playing when India reached the Asian Cup finals in 2011. However, in an unfortunate twist of fate, he was not physically fit to serve the team in Doha. Bhutia missed India's opening two matches against Australia and Bahrain. In the final game against South Korea, Bhutia could only be a second-half substitute as India's hopes rapidly diminished. Without its talisman, The Blue Tigers had very little to take away from their endeavours in Qatar.
Eight years down the line, as the opportunity of an Asian challenge knocks on the Indian doors once again, the mantle of carrying the nation's hopes rests on the able shoulders of Sunil Chhetri who was part of the Indian side which Bhutia was supposed to inspire in 2011.
As Chhetri and Co look to begin preparation for the UAE event, Bhutia stressed hard on the need to keep the Indian captain in the pink of health. "It is very important for us to keep Sunil (Chhetri) fit. I have gone through the experience and for me, Sunil staying fit in UAE is very important," Bhutia told reporters on the sidelines of the launch ceremony of the 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign film initiated by Sony Pictures Networks India, the official broadcasters of the event in India.
"The good thing with Sunil is that he has the experience of playing in the Asian Cup. It is the biggest tournament for Indian players. After the World Cup, this is the biggest tournament for Asian football. So it doesn't get bigger than this.
"There will be a lot of big players, all top stars from Asia playing there. The (Indian)players will share the same hotel with some of those players. They must stay confident and not get overwhelmed. That’s where Sunil will have to guide them by sharing his knowledge," he added.
"It is important for him to stay free of injury and arrive in Dubai in the best possible shape. That will make a big difference," Bhutia emphasised.
Chhetri had called for India to play more away games against tougher opponents in the lead up to the Asian Cup, and Bhutia echoed the thoughts of his former teammate.
"India need to play a lot of matches outside India because playing outside is a very different experience. It’s a new environment, a new area and psychologically, playing away makes a lot of difference" the former Indian captain said.
Adding on to Chhetri's point, Bhutia felt that it would be ideal if India get a chance to play in UAE before the tournament, just to become "aware" of the place and the environment by playing a few matches against club sides there.
The former skipper also highlighted the role Indian Super League might play in making the players better equipped to stand up against top players and tackle strong teams in the competition.
"I think playing in the ISL will help the team. They play with big players regularly. That psychological aspect will certainly be beneficial, especially with players travelling to foreign countries for pre-season with their clubs on a regular basis," Bhutia said recalling how players during his playing days were often lacking in global exposure with clubs not being able to afford pre-season tours abroad.
India have been grouped with hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain in the 2019 event, and Bhutia feels Chhetri's team are lucky to have avoided big guns like Australia, South Korea and Japan. The relatively easier group has given India a slight chance of qualifiying, and the former striker is quietly optimistic about India's chances.
However, when asked what India should look to take home from the competition, Bhutia was as quick as he was modest in his reply.
"First just get to the second round. If we can do that, it’s big," the former Indian skipper signed off
Updated Date: May 16, 2018 09:07 AM