A tough and unenviable test awaits the Indian football team as they get ready for their fourth-ever appearance in the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup.
How far Indian football had progressed and developed over the last few years is about to be determined as the Blue Tigers get ready to rub shoulders with the 23 top teams in the continent currently.
Head coach Stephen Constantine has at his disposal a fairly young 23-man squad with veteran Sunil Chhetri set to play the role of the talisman once again. 22 members of the final India squad currently ply their trade in the Indian Super League (ISL) with East Bengal defender Salam Ranjan Singh being the sole exception.
As such, the role ISL has had to play in the team’s preparations for the tournament will be of great significance. India’s players will be up against some of Asia’s biggest stars in the UAE and this is where their experience of regularly rubbing shoulders with some of the star overseas names in the ISL could come in handy.
Many of the young players in the Indian squad do not have any previous experience of playing in big international tournaments of the stature of the Asian Cup. Only two players in the squad – Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu – have any prior experience at the Asian Cup level.
There remain many teething issues still surrounding the ISL ever since it came into existence in 2014 but there is no doubt that it has provided plenty of exposure to India’s young and upcoming players over the years.
Plenty of big names like Nicolas Anelka, Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Carlos and Dimitar Berbatov have graced the ISL in the past four years. While these stalwarts might have been on their last legs with regards to their careers when coming to India, there have been many foreign stars still at their peak who have joined the ISL of late.
Some of the names among them are Edu Garcia, Edu Bedia, Hugo Boumous, Raphael Augusto and the likes. Also there were names who were past their peak but still increased the level of the league like Diego Forlan, Elano, Lucio, Simao, Florent Malouda etc. These overseas stars have brought their best to the ISL in recent seasons and have helped increase the quality of the league by some distance.
Playing among such quality players on a regular basis had its knock-on effect on the domestic players who have raised the level of their game in a bid to keep up with the standards. It has given many youngsters the confidence to elevate their game with the likes of Subhasish Bose, Anirudh Thapa, Vinit Rai, Ashique Kuruniyan, Amrinder Singh and Vishal Kaith all taking massive strides in their development.
Even some of the more experienced players like Sandesh Jhingan have come on leaps and bounds since their maiden foray into the ISL.
What the ISL has done for many Indian players is to remove the fear of the ‘unknown’. It has come as a massive boon to domestic players who had never experienced the big stage previously. With their participation in the league, many youngsters have gained the belief that they can go toe-to-toe with their high-profile overseas counterparts.
“It's hard to quantify the impact but players can tell you about the nuances. We go in to the 50-50 balls, to the late tackles with far more conviction. Having played with all these big names in ISL, the fear of the unknown is gone,” India international Subhasish Bose had stressed recently when asked to describe the impact of the ISL.
As Bose stated, it might not be possible to quantify the impact of the ISL on the young players but what cannot be denied is the substantial increase in their confidence levels and belief. The proof of the pudding will ultimately be determined by how India’s youngsters fare against Asia’s mightiest in the coming weeks.