All along, it was assumed India’s low ranking was one of the main reasons for other nations not wanting to play a friendly match against them. That problem seems to haunt the team even now, when it has broken into the top-100 of the world.
India coach Stephen Constantine said on the eve of the team’s departure for Abu Dhabi — where they will hold a preparatory camp for a couple of weeks before the Asian Cup begins in UAE next month — that the All India Football Federation set letters to ‘25-30’ nations to arrange friendlies. However, just one responded – Oman.
As a result, while most countries will play at least two practice matches just before the Asian Cup – and made the most of the November window – India will play just one match, on December 27. Constantine, however, insisted it wasn’t for ‘lack of trying.’ “The preparation is certainly okay although we could have used a few more games. That, however, isn’t due to a lack of trying,” Constantine said on the sidelines of the team’s new kit. “We sent letters to 25-30 FAs to arrange friendlies. We wanted to face the teams participating in the Asian Cup. I think we have tried to prepare as best we can.”
The AIFF has a national team division that sets up friendly matches for the national team. Constantine, under whom the team has climbed approximately 80 spots in FIFA rankings, said he too directly speaks to coaches from other countries to gauge their interest. “We wanted to play big teams, strong teams like China, Jordan and Oman. These are the teams we wanted to play. So we write a letter to the respective FA and get a reply,” Constantine said.
The reluctance of top Asian nations to play India
Chief coach Stephen Constantine said on Thursday India had sent requests to 25-30 nations for friendly matches before the Asian Cup, but only one match – against Oman – could be finalised. This shows that even though India (ranked 97) have climbed up the FIFA charts, it is still not considered as a worthy opponent by most nations. For most higher-ranked nations, India is not seen as a team that will test their players - which is one of the purpose of friendly matches. Playing India doesn't help their ranking as well - a win against lower-ranked teams does not count for much. So even if they agree to play India, they end up sending their second-string team. For instance, Puerto Rico sent its ‘B’ team for a friendly in Mumbai a couple of years ago while earlier this year, New Zealand and Kenya sent virtually unrecognisable squads for the Inter-Continental Cup. . The performances away from home against China and Jordan have shown that India has gradually become a tough team to beat, but unless the team gets more such performances under its belt, it won't be considered a serious team by other countries.
Constantine said he received an offer to play a warm-up match from Iran coach Carlos Queiroz but he had to deny since the Oman tie was already fixed for the same day.
He and India captain Sunil Chhetri, however, insisted lack of matches ahead of the Asian Cup will not hamper the team’s preparations. “In 2011, we were together for six months. But this time of the year, all the boys that have been selected are playing constantly in the Indian Super League and the I-League,” Chhetri said. “Now we just have to come together as a single unit and give it our best shot when we get to UAE.”
Defenders Nishu Kumar and Jerry Lalrinzuala were ruled out of the tournament due to injuries. No replacements have been called to replace them. India will begin their campaign against Thailand on January 6 before facing hosts UAE on January 10. Their last group match will be against Bahrain on January 14.