The AFC Asian Cup is the second oldest continental championship in the world behind the Copa America. Founded in 1956 in Hong Kong, it is a four-yearly competition that crowns the winners as the top team of Asia. The winners of this tournament also get a direct entry to the FIFA Confederations Cup. This tournament is the top prize in Asian football. India has a dubious record having qualified to the finals on only four occasions.
Before the 2019 edition, India had previously qualified on only three occasions. The first was way back in 1964 when the cup was only a four-team event. India got a direct qualification as the team to represent west zone in the tournament hosted by Israel. This was India’s first ever major tournament after they missed out on World Cup participation in 1950. This tournament also marked India’s best performance at the Asia Cup as they finished runners-up behind host nation Israel.
The nation had to wait for twenty years before their next qualification. In 1984, when the team qualified, an extremely tough assignment awaited them in the group stage. In a ten nation tournament, all the participating teams were divided into two groups. India’s group consisted of host nation Singapore, UAE and heavyweights China PR and Iran. India had a dismal showing as they lost three of their four matches and drew against Iran in a goalless match. They came home with one point having failed to score a single goal and conceding seven in four matches.
The most recent of qualifications before the 2019 edition came eight years ago as India qualified for the 2011 edition by winning the AFC Challenge Cup. This edition consisted of 16 teams and India was drawn in Group C alongside Australia, Bahrain, and South Korea. India lost all three of its matches failing to score against an Australian side that included Tim Cahill in their ranks. Sunil Chhetri, now a 67 goal veteran scored all three goals for India albeit in a losing cause. Two of his strikes came against Bahrain and one against South Korea.
Eight years on, the situation of Indian football is different. The team has improved immensely under the leadership of Chhetri and enter the tournament with a point to prove. The rise of young guns Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathodika and midfield gems like Udanta Singh, Rowllin Borges, and Jackichand Singh along with a good striking duo of Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua has increased anticipation among the Indian supporters. The game itself has seen quite a mercurial rise in the country with grass-root development having taken place and the formation of the Indian Super League has added a new dimension to the sport. The 23-man squad coached by Stephen Constantine will be looking to leave a mark on the tournament and progressing to the knockout stages will be their first objective.
Drawn in a tough group that includes Thailand, Bahrain and host nation UAE, the Blue Tigers got off to the best possible start as they thrashed Thailand in the group opener by 4-1. Sunil Chhetri netted a brace and became the second highest active goal-scorer in International football behind Cristiano Ronaldo. Jeje and young midfielder Akash Thapa wrapped up the match after Thailand had equalized from a free kick in the first half.
Let us hope that the team keeps firing on all cylinders and etches its name in the history books. Back the Blue!
Video: Watch the Match Highlights