January 14, 2011 – India 2-5 Bahrain. January 14, 2019 – Indian 0-1 Bahrain.
Indian football has definitely progressed as the Blue Tigers gave a very good account of themselves in a tough group in the AFC Asian Cup. Despite finishing bottom, they played some good football and fought for the entire duration of 90 minutes in all their three games.
In the end, it took a heartbreaking 92nd-minute penalty kick to send India back home from UAE. While the defeat will remain a painful memory to all football fans across the country, it is a good time to ponder whether we actually did enough to make it to the knockouts.
Anyone who has watched Indian football will go out on a limb to testify that the Indian football team is a much better version of their 2011 selves. The palpable difference is the massive upgrade in fitness and conditioning to last the entire duration of the game.
Not once in the tournament was India outrun by their opponents and that in itself speaks volumes of the improvements made in the grassroots of Indian football.
The entire squad barring Sunil Chhetri was a part of junior and sub-junior teams the last time India played in this tournament and it goes to show the stress that has been put on nutrition of the players. There was not one moment in the games against UAE and Bahrain that the Indian players were shrugged off the ball due to lack of upper body or core strength.
The likes of Pritam Kotal, Pronay Halder, Halicharan Narzary and Jeje were a part of the Pailan Arrows side, AIFF's Elite Academy that played in the I-League between 2010 and 2013. Others like Sandesh Jhingan and Udanta were a part of different academy teams. Thus, the tournament is a testament to the nation-wide improvement in bringing fitter and stronger players through the ranks.
The other visible difference in this Indian team has been their standard of football. The team has players who are very capable of playing decent football without resorting to hopeful long balls. This was at its glorious display in the second half of India's opening game against Thailand. The likes of Anirudh Thapa, Chhetri, Udanta and Ashique Kuruniyan played very watchable football glittered with neat exchange of passes and clinical finishing.
This, minus the clinical finishing, continued in the first half of the second game against UAE too. In fact, had India taken half their clear cut chances, they would have scored four goals in the game. Apart from their finishing boots, the Blue Tigers seemed to have also left their luck in the dressing room in that game.
But inexplicably, against Bahrain and for one half each against UAE and Thailand, India resorted to long balls which entirely bypassed the midfield. It was obvious that these were tactics that came directly from the bench. It was frustrating to watch a team that delighted even the commentators suddenly decided to replicate Manchester United under Jose Mourinho against big teams.
It was evident that the players were playing for a draw against Bahrain and for over 90 minutes they had the draw that kept them in second place of Group A but all the defending and hopeful long balls that Jeje failed to control got to India. With pressure mounting from the opposition, a tired tackle resulted and with one kick of the ball from 12 yards, India slipped from second to fourth and from UAE back to India.
Indian coach Stephen Constantine stepped down following the defeat and a lot of Indian fans have opined through his regime that the football could have been better because the players are capable of playing on the ground. A section of the fans also felt that the national team selection could most definitely have been more inclusive of the two leagues.
India showed so much promise in the tournament which makes their exit extremely heartbreaking for the fans. But, in principle. the team had only one good half and it was hardly surprising that this came when India avoided long balls. Whoever's brainchild it was, the outcome was India's exit from a tournament where they genuinely enthralled, but only in patches.
Despite the obvious shortcomings, when the dust settles the entire team and its fans can be very proud of those that represented the country in UAE. This tournament was a token of acknowledgement to all those who have and continue to watch Indian football through the 2 pm weekday kickoffs telling them, "Keep coming we are on the right path."
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Business Times, India.