Koji Gyotoku wore a forlorn expression at the pre-match press conference. The Japanese coach is in Mumbai, leading the Nepal national team ahead of their friendly against India. But the visitors haven’t had the best of facilities to prepare for their upcoming exhibition game, and even for their challenge to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup. Till today, Nepalese football continues to reel under the effects of the devastating earthquake in 2015.
“The national stadium was completely destroyed, and we have had no place to play,” says Gyotoku. “We’ve managed to get in a one-month camp so far, but on artificial turf.”
It’s against the minnows, ranked 169th in the world, that India will play a warm-up game. A mismatched tie it may seem for the hosts, but there will still be a lot for Stephen Constantine’s team to take away from the game, before taking on the Kyrgyz Republic in their second Asian Cup qualifier. India was initially slated to play Lebanon for the friendly, but the Central Asian team was forced to back out due to visa issues. Ranked 100 – the highest India has reached since being 94 back in 1996 – the Blue Tigers will need to establish themselves as a worthy top 100 team. And though Nepal fall well short in rankings, Constantine asserts the neighbouring nation will put forward a decent test. “They are a hard working team and have a strong mentality. They will fight for the ball,” says the head coach. Last week, the 54-year-old had said, “they run a lot and have been a thorn in our side for many years.”
Since taking over as coach for the second time in 2015, Constantine has led the team in the rise of its rank from lowly 173 to the 100 they currently sit on. During the course, he’s handed out debuts to over 30 players, but has now found a core set of players to make up the team. It’s a squad that has managed to put up a run of good results, winning all the five matches they’ve played in all competitions since last June – including the 1-0 away win against Myanmar in the opening match of the Asian Cup qualifiers.
“I see no reason why this team cannot go forward and qualify for the Asian Cup,” says goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. “The skill and talent is all there, but we just need to maintain our focus and commitment.”
Absence of Chhetri
The shot-stopper, who plies his trade at Norwegian club Stabaek, will captain the team in the absence of inspirational skipper Sunil Chhetri.
The 32-year-old had torn a hamstring during the Federation Cup last month, but did make an apperance for Bangalore FC’s recent AFC Cup match against Maldivian side Maziya, scoring the stoppage time winner.
“He (Sunil) will certainly not play against Nepal. We’ve taken the decision more as a precaution. But there are players who staking a claim for a place in the side that will play Kyrgyz Republic (on June 13 in Bangalore),” says Constantine. At 32, Chhetri has been a lynchpin for the national team ever since he made his India debut during Constantine’s first stint as coach in 2005. In fact, the last time India qualified for the continental tournament, back in the 2011 edition, was courtesy of a Chhetri hat-trick in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup final against Tajikstan.
“He has been a good player for India and is still up to the mark. I’d like to see him captain the team in 2019 (should the team qualify),” Constantine adds.