The 55-year wait: The Blue Tigers’ resurgence on Asia’s biggest stage
The nation's still basking in the aftereffects of India’s stunning 4-1 victory over Thailand in their group opener at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup on Sunday. After an eight-year hiatus from Asia’s premier footballing event, India sent a reminder to the rest of the teams in the tournament about the inherent quality within the side following a commanding display over a promising Thailand outfit. To give some perspective into the magnitude of India’s achievement, their last win in the Asian Cup came 55 years ago, during the 1964 campaign. Here we briefly chart India’s road to the Asian Cup and highlight a few reasons behind their recent rise in the footballing world.
Road to UAE
The journey to the AFC Asian Cup was no easy task as India had to play a total of 18 matches to get to UAE. After a series of disappointing results in 2016, the Blue Tigers’ fortunes would change in 2017, thanks in large parts to talisman Sunil Chhetri. In the end, a 4-1 victory over Macau in October 2017 sealed their qualification in the highly coveted tournament.
An integral figure behind India’ qualification has been head coach Stephen Constantine. The Englishman has received plenty of criticism throughout his tenure with the national team. The backlash was even more profound during the days leading up to the Asian Cup, when he chose to leave out some of Hero ISL’s best performers from the 2018-19 season. However, the positives which Constantine has brought to this team far outweigh the drawbacks. Under his stewardship, India have reached their highest-ever FIFA ranking and have firmly established themselves as a side that can’t be taken lightly. The performance against Thailand was another example of the good work done by Constantine over the past four years.
A collective effort
Finally, the team spirit and mentality within the squad has been a driving force behind the impressive results. While many consider Chhetri to be the heartbeat of the team, the likes of Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu have matured over the years to become leaders on the pitch. Constantine has also not shied away from rotating the captaincy armband, using Gurpreet as the captain for the Thailand encounter. Youngsters, most notably Anirudh Thapa and Udanta Singh have shone bright for the squad over the past year and this can be attributed to the guidance and encouragement provided by Chhetri and Gurpreet.
A campaign to remember?
After Sunday’s victory against Thailand, India have put themselves firmly in the driving seat to qualify for the knockout rounds, especially considering their superior goal difference, which could come into play.
How far they go in the tournament remains to be seen, but the team has got the backing of the entire country to make the 2019 AFC Asian Cup a memorable one.