When young Milan Singh came on as a second-half substitute in India’s 3-2 win over Cambodia last week, he became the 31st player to make his international debut in Stephen Constantine’s two years and 20 matches as the coach. It’s a never-seen-before kind of rebuilding phase of the national team but one that was necessary after the team’s stagnation under former coach Wim Koevermans.
Now, Constantine’s job depends on the very players whom he gave the first big international break. India begin their final attempt at qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup on Tuesday in Yangon against a boisterous Myanmar side. But this isn’t just about Constantine’s future. If anything, it is a tiny speck in the overall scheme of things.
This is more about India’s footballing future. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) expanded the size of the continental championship to 24 teams from 16. The move was in line with the global trend in football of including more teams, but also with an intention to accommodate large football-consuming markets like India.
A failure to qualify for a bloated Asian Cup would be a major embarrassment for the country, and pretty disastrous for the national team’s future prospects, in terms of convincing decent teams to play them.
So Yangon is an extremely important pit stop on India’s road to the UAE. This is the third round of qualifiers – India defeated Nepal 2-0 in the opening round to qualify for the first group stage, which was their first opportunity to qualify for the Asian Cup. But that turned out to be a painful campaign for Constantine & Co, who finished at the bottom of the five-team group.
It meant India had to overcome Laos in a playoff to be eligible for the final round of the qualifiers, which they convincingly did, and now, they find themselves in Group A alongside Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Macau. Top two teams at the end of the qualifiers, to be played in home-and-away format over the next 12 months, will qualify for the continental championship.
On paper, this is a no match. India are in the middle of one of their best international runs, having won 9 and lost just 2 of the 11 matches played since November 2015. The rare upswing has reflected in FIFA rankings as well, where the team matched its best ranking in a decade last January.
Myanmar, on the other hand, recorded the biggest points drop (30) among the 209 nations in March’s FIFA rankings. They consequently slid 13 places to 172 in the world — a good 40 places below India. But India approach the tie with caution, and with good reason. India have twitchy travelers – the win over Cambodia last week was their first away win in a friendly in 12 years.
But apart from their iffy form on the road, India are also respectful of their opponents, who’ve punched above their weight of late. Despite their low ranking, Myanmar have done something that India never have – qualify for a FIFA World Cup, albeit an age-group one. India will be playing in the under-17 World Cup this year, but that’s by the virtue of being the hosts. Myanmar, however, had a stunning performance in the AFC U-19 Championships in 2014 to make the cut for the 2015 under-20 World Cup.
Half of their likely playing XI for Tuesday’s match against India is made up of players who’d played in the youth World Cup. Like most South East Asian teams, Myanmar too rely on their speed. But they also have skillful players like 24-year-old forward Kyaw Ko Ko and Aung Thu, who belongs to Myanmar’s famous class of 2015.
Defensively, though, they have been porous and that’s where Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua, who were on target against Cambodia, will sense an opportunity. India still do not have a steady playing XI due to Constantine’s constant tinkering.
It reflects at times on the field, with the team playing in a disjointed manner and lacking ideas. Constantine will hope that, in the most crucial phase of a tiring qualifying campaign, the players would show the faith in his strategies. Just like he has, by giving so many of them a chance.