Once again, it’s been a case of the Indian football team ‘winning hearts’ before their campaign fizzled out at the ongoing Asian Cup on Monday night. The familiar, empty feeling for the average Indian football fan is back — who will now have to wait long before the next meaningful campaign in the shape of World Cup qualifiers, which get under way in September.
Yes, the Blue Tigers’ showing under Stephen Constantine has shown a remarkable improvement in a tough competition like the Asian Cup — now billed as the ‘World Cup of Asia.’ From swallowing 13 goals in three group league matches during their last campaign in the 2011 edition in Qatar, there has been a quantum jump when they surprised all and sundry with an emphatic 4-1 win against Thailand and could have finished on the winning side but for missed chances against hosts UAE.
The Indian media, as one gathers, have been complimentary in view of the national team’s abysmal record in this tournament — which sums up how the former Asian Games bronze medallists had slipped down the football pecking order in the continent over the decades. A line from a leading English daily, The Hindu, sums it up objectively: “The Indians had endured a long journey to rub shoulders with the Asia’s best. Unfortunately for them, the journey ends here.”
The million dollar question, which sticks out for those who care for the fortunes of the Indian football team is: what next? The coach has been pragmatic enough to realise that this is possibly the best that he could achieve with the current lot while Sunil Chhetri, the most recognisable brand in Indian football after Baichung Bhutia, is at the twilight of his career while his strike partner Jeje is no spring chicken either at 28.
It’s most convenient to be patronising about the Indian team’s showing in the UAE showpiece, but the need of the hour should be to raise the ambition levels for a start. As the All India Football Federation (AIFF) goes back to the drawing board, they must compliment themselves on putting their best foot forward in preparation for the Asian Cup but now set higher goals in their pursuit for a shot at Qatar 2022.
The cynic in me says if it’s asking for the impossible, but it’s time to stop being content with yet another ‘good show.’ And yes, take care that Chhetri does not have to tweet for supporters to throng the ground as they begin their next assignment!