India's preparation for 'huge' Asian Cup starts now
Sunil Chhetri limps as he walks through the mixed zone at the Kanteerava Stadium, having given the Indian Super League (ISL) broadcasters an interview after leading Bengaluru FC to the playoffs in their maiden season.
He reveals it happened because of a stomp on his foot - a tiny but visible mark on his left leg validates this - and only started hurting once substituted. After answering a few questions on his club, there's a twinkle in his eye as he cuts short a query about how critical the next 11 months are for Indian football, as they prepare to play the AFC Asian Cup in 2019.
"Huge, man. I had a chat with all the boys in the group," he says. "I said, 'it starts now - make sure individually everyone is working hard. Of course, you are playing for your clubs but make sure you are improving every day because come January, it is not going to be easy'."
The first step to deciding the course of India's preparation for the Asian Cup was set in motion by the All Indian Football Federation's (AIFF) technical committee last week, when they chose to extend head coach Stephen Constantine's contract by a year till the end of the tournament in UAE. The AIFF's executive committee is expected to ratify the decision in the coming week, after which it will be up to Constantine to accept the offer.
India's first match of the year only takes place away to Kyrgyzstan on March 27, the last of their qualifying games, but as Chhetri and other ex-players believe, every day in the next 11 months have to go into ensuring the best possible performance by the Indian team.
The camp conundrum
In the run up to the 2011 tournament, then coach Bob Houghton had taken a core group of players away from the I-League and kept them together from June 2010, playing friendlies in India and taking them on exposure tours, but the football community appears divided on whether that approach should be taken this time.
Chhetri, for one, believes Houghton took that step because he may have felt the level of the league wasn't up to the mark back in 2010. "I think it is easier this time because all the clubs have better coaching and everyone looks fit," he says, though admitting it would ultimately depend on the coach.
Abhishek Yadav, a striker with the 2011 team who worked closely with the U-17 team in their run-up to the World Cup last year as head of scouting, agrees that the level of domestic football has improved, but says all stakeholders have to get together for the greater good of Indian football to ensure a smooth calendar for the team.
"Every coach will prefer more days with the team, because each coach has his style. The ISL, I-League, everyone has to get behind the national team. We should be ready as a country to make whatever little sacrifices that have to be made," he says.
The quality of opposition
AIFF told ESPN earlier this year of a four-nations tournament in June that would have teams from different continents to give the Indian team exposure to different styles. Shabbir Ali, who was a striker with the Indian team that played in the Asian Cup in Singapore in December 1984, says their generation never had the opportunity of playing so many games, qualifying as they did through a short tournament in Kolkata in October that year.
"We went to China, and then another last tour, before going to Singapore. We didn't know about the plus and minus points of the other teams," he says. "You have to play at least one or two tough matches. It's a good thing that the coach will have time to discard players who are not performing and call up new players, but you have to play on a regular basis."
Yadav advocates a preparation similar to what the U-17 team underwent, saying that the existing coach and his support staff have delivered "impressive" results. "It requires a different level of fitness and mental toughness when you enter the Asian Cup. We need to play more teams from South-east Asia, the Middle-East and elsewhere in Asia. We must play higher-ranked opponents."
Learning from history
India were drawn with Australia, South Korea and Bahrain in the 2011 Asian Cup, and Chhetri believes at least two of the "top guns" of Asia would be grouped with India during the draw in April.
Chhetri is one of three survivors from the 2011 team who is still in the national fold, goalkeepers Subrata Pal and Gurpreet Sandhu being the others. That can work as an advantage, as the younger players may not carry any scars from the three group matches, where India scored three goals but conceded 13 in three defeats.
"I think we did really well but we paid a little more respect than we should have done to teams like Australia and Korea. They do command respect but we paid a bit too much respect," says Chhetri. "Now if we are very well-prepared and don't have any injuries, we can go out there and play our game. We are going to be facing the best teams in Asia. No matter how much you prepare, it might still be short."
Chhetri's message to any footballer hoping to pull on the jersey in January in UAE is simple -- start working right now.
"That's why the message was simple to the players - wherever you are, keep training hard and keep thinking about the Asian Cup, because it comes once every four years and it's huge."