India had a brilliant campaign in the qualification stage for the 1984 AFC Asian Cup. They won three out of their four matches and only lost to Asian giants South Korea by a narrow 1-0 margin.
And much of the credit would go to Atanu Bhattacharya, who stood tall under the sticks and pulled off numerous brilliant saves to fire India to the final round.
"The qualification games were held in Kolkata. We made the best use of home advantage and won against North Yemen, Pakistan and Malaysia. We played a strong South Korea side and we were not outplayed. But we did not progress from the group stage in the final round in Singapore. There are a lot of reasons behind it. Our preparation was not up to the mark. The current squad have travelled to UAE at least two weeks before the first match. But we could travel to Singapore only two days before our match against the hosts. We did not have so many sponsors. I think only 18 to 20 players travelled to reduce cost. We did not have such an elaborate coaching staff as well.
"We did have a goalkeeper coach back in '84 but he never played as a goalkeeper. Still, we practised under him. I prepared myself mentally that I will remain busy for the entire 90 minutes. Indian keepers have to deal with a lot of balls which is a good thing as it boosts their confidence. We did whatever we could only by sheer determination. That tournament gave me the recognition as a goalkeeper and that is a huge achievement for me," told Bhattacharya to Goal on the eve of India's AFC Asian Cup opener against Thailand.
Interestingly, the shot-stopper made his India debut before and it was only after his impressive performances in national colours, he was called up for West Bengal's Santosh trophy team. He represented East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting during his playing career and later joined the Red and Golds as a goalkeeper coach. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has trained under this stalwart during his tenure at East Bengal and the former India skipper believes that his pupil would pass the Asian Cup test with flying colours.
"Gurpreet is a young goalkeeper. Goalkeepers mature with age and experience. But the level he has reached at such a young age is outstanding. He trained under my tutelage during his tenure with East Bengal. He is a very tall keeper and that is a huge advantage for him. He never buckles under pressure. He always keeps calm under pressure. His stint in Europe has also helped him a lot. He has played at some of the biggest competitions and I hope that he will do well in UAE," opines Bhattacharya.
When quizzed about India's chances in the continent's marquee tournament the former keeper is pretty optimistic that the Blue Tigers would put up a good show in UAE.
"India is in a much better place than we were back in 1984. The current team have got the opportunity to acclimatise and even play practice matches against strong sides which will definitely boost their confidence. The young generation is playing good football under Stephen Constantine. I think Sunil (Chhetri) is the only other player who has got significant experience in the international stage. I am sure he will motivate the players to give their best and do well himself.
"It will not be surprising if India qualifies for the knock-out rounds. I believe that it is possible for India to beat Bahrain and Thailand. UAE will be a tough opponent and moreover, they will have home advantage. They (India) have undertaken a good preparation by playing against stronger sides like China and Jordan. They have worked hard. The result against China will surely boost their morale. They will not fear the opposition as they have played better sides during the preparatory stages. Therefore, I really hope that India will play well in this tournament," signed off Bhattacharya.