When Balwant Singh, a substitute on the night and a revelation in recent times, ran down the right and squared the ball into the box, anyone who has followed Indian football for a while now knew what was going to happen.
The ball took its merry time reaching its target, a diminutive man wearing the number 11 shirt. As it rolled slowly across the 18-yard-box for what seemed like an eternity, and as Sunil Chhetri appeared out of nowhere on the other side like a ghost, like he always does, you knew the outcome. It was a goal before Chhetri put the ball into the net. It was a goal before Balwant put in the cross. It was a goal before the game began.
Chhetri's decisive strike took India to victory over Macau, and into the AFC Asian Cup for only the fourth time in history.
There wasn't much doubt that India would prevail in Bengaluru on Wednesday. Beating Macau 4-1 at home doesn't mean much in itself. But the scale of the achievement that came with the win truly sunk in at the final whistle. On a cold, wet night in Bengaluru, the sun was shining on Indian football.
"I don't know how I feel. I'll go back to the dressing room, talk to the boys and then maybe I'll know," a breathless Chhetri said after the game.
In the last three years, the Indian football team has made tangible progress. Many young players came to the fore and helped India clinch the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) championship. These youngsters have now become regulars in the first team. India's FIFA ranking rose sharply, reaching the top 100 recently. The ongoing U-17 World Cup is the nation's maiden foray at a FIFA tournament, and will serve as valuable experience, not just for the young players but also for sports administrators.
Qualifying for the Asian Cup also represents the very quest and being of Indian football: To get better. Despite the leaps and bounds made in recent times, despite the money and attention pouring in through the Indian Super League, India still remains considerable steps behind top Asian teams in terms of quality and preparation. "We have worked really hard. But in the end, we are India. So we know we have to work harder," the Indian skipper said.
And he couldn't be more right. Any success for Indian football opens the gates for further improvement. The Asian Cup is that gate. And how does one get better? Of course, one needs to work hard. And if there are those around you who make you work harder than ever, that is when you truly improve. The Indian team will only get better when it plays against better teams. And Asian Cup will provide that opportunity.
We witnessed a similar situation with the Afghanistan national team at the 2016 SAFF Championships as well. The Afghans had clearly improved over time and were now dispatching other nations in the SAFF sub-confederation with considerable ease.
Only a spirited India performance in the final stopped them from retaining the title. It was also Afghanistan's last SAFF tournament. They were moving on to the recently formed Central Asian Football Association (CAFA). Afghanistan had outgrown SAFF, become a big fish in a small pond. They needed tougher, better opponents. And CAFA offered them just that.
Afghanistan, then ranked highest among the SAFF nations, was the lowest ranked team in CAFA, which comprised Asian heavyweights like Iran and Uzbekistan. India too needs to play against heavyweight teams like Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Australia, Iran, Iraq, etc. And in the Asian Cup, the Blue Tigers will face the continent's best. The Asian Cup is not just a big continental tournament; for India, it is also a measure of how good they can be.
The other good news is that India has earned qualification early on, in the third round itself, which gives them more than year to prepare for the 2019 edition to be held in the UAE. Considering where the team has reached in such little time, one can expect them be better by 2019. A national training centre is on its way and intense scouting leading up to the U-17 World Cup has uncovered some serious young talent in the country.
One of them, Jeakson Thounaojam, aged only 16, scored India's first goal at the World Cup. Another, Dheeraj Moirangthem, 17, has become a household name due to heroics with a pair of gloves. The senior team has changed visibly in how they play. Rarely does one see them resorting to diagonal long balls of the past. India are fitter, faster and stronger and it is apparent on the field. By In a year and half, India is bound to be better prepared to take on continental giants.
When asked what the victory and qualification meant for the team, Chhetri echoed a similar sentiment. "It means we rub shoulders with the best in Asia," he said.
India is lucky to have Chhetri, not just because he is a world class forward, but also because he's such a pragmatic and intelligent leader. He appreciates the hard work done to reach this point but acknowledges the difficult path that lies ahead. He does not have grand designs or schemes for Indian football, but takes it one step at a time. He does not talk in dreams, but instead tries to deliver the reality.
It's a process and the Asian Cup qualification is turning of a page. India will play teams that have played in the World Cup. India will lose. But India will learn. With contrasting fortunes of the ISL and I-league at home and their repercussions, Indian football often finds itself between a rock and hard place. But the prospect of playing in the Asian Cup is one surface the team wouldn't mind falling on.
Updated Date: Oct 13, 2017 18:51 PM