When India’s U16 team registered a historic 1-0 win over defending Asian champions Iraq in the West Asia Football Federation (WAFF) U16 tournament in Jordan, it was a vindication of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) efforts.
The two bodies have left no stone unturned to give Bibiano Fernandes’ colts the most comprehensive of preparations in the lead up to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U16 Asian Cup to be held in Malaysia this September.
The U16 boys finished an impressive second in the five-team competition which also involved Yemen, Jordan and Japan. While the side recorded wins over all teams bar Japan, the most heartening aspect of their display was that it came against teams who they will be rubbing shoulders with them in the continental showdown in Malaysia.
In their preparations for the Asian Cup, the U16 squad has participated in a host of exposure trips which has seen them play four-nation tournaments in China, Serbia along with India-Egypt Friendship Cup in Egypt, Jockey Cup in Hong Kong, MIC and Sportchain Cup in Spain.
This run of matches has seen Bibiano and his boys take on eight of the 15 other contestants for the Asian Cup. Now, they are set to take on another of them in Oman when they travel to Turkey. They beat the likes of Malaysia, Yemen, Tajikistan, Jordan and Iraq while losing to Thailand and Japan. Theld held DPR Korea as well.
In contrast, the senior national team helmed by Stephen Constantine have played none of the 23 other teams that will descend in UAE for the 2019 Asian Cup.
The last time India faced one of the qualified teams from the tournament (apart from fellow Group A qualifiers Kyrgyz Republic) came all the way back in March 2016. On that occasion, they had been beaten 2-1 by Turkmenistan in a World Cup qualifier at home.
Since then, the Blues have played six international friendlies (including the Intercontinental Cup) but none has come against an opponent that will be playing in the UAE in less than five months.
An international friendly against Palestine was initially scheduled in October last year was later called off.
A friendly against China is scheduled for October but that will serve as their only game against fellow Asian Cup qualifiers for the greater part of three years.
Meanwhile, Group A rivals Bahrain will be taking on China and the Philippines (both qualified teams) in a set of friendlies in September. This is in addition to their participation in the Arabian Gulf Cup at the start of the year where they played the likes of Qatar, Oman and Yemen. They have since also played a friendly against Palestine.
The UAE too, like Bahrain, played their fair quota of qualified teams (Iraq, Oman, Saudi Arabia) in the Middle-East tournament. Having just played Andorra in a friendly on Friday, the hosts have scheduled a total of four more games until the main tournament. While none of them are scheduled against the qualified teams, they will still be locking horns with high-calibre opponents like Venezuela.
The final Group A rival, Thailand, played against the top Asian teams including Australia and Iraq on a regular basis in their extended run in the World Cup qualifiers last year. This year, they recently faced China in a friendly while they will face the Philippines in the year-end AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Suzuki Cup.
Quite simply, India have been lagging way behind their rivals in playing the top Asian teams during their preparatory phase.
If the same vision that had been applied to the U16 outfit had been deployed at the senior team level, India could have gone in much better prepared to the continental showpiece. Perhaps a ranking boost might have been the motivating factor behind India’s scheduling of their opponents but despite the risk of a minor dip in their rank, the side could have benefitted from getting accustomed to the level of their Asian Cup opponents.
Instead, India go into their Asian Cup Group A as the second-highest ranked team behind the UAE. But despite Bahrain and Thailand being ranked below them, it will be hard for anyone to call India favourites in their slated matches against the two.
Moreover, India have not played any away friendlies in the past few years. The last away friendly India played was against Cambodia back in 2016.
At the time of writing this article, India only have an away friendly against China confirmed. India are slated to play Oman just before the Asian Cup in a warm-up game but there does not seem to be any other game in the horizon. India should have played more away friendlies against countries like China on a more regular basis in the lead up to the Asian Cup.
The Indian team which participated in the 2011 Asian Cup had played a lot of top Asian teams away from home and even then got hammered, albeit in a strong group.
With the morale-boosting wins the U16 team has notched up in recent months, they will go into the final tournament in a month’s time flying high on confidence.
The seniors though, still bear the look of an incomplete side after going untested against the sides that really matter. Whatever the reasoning behind the scheduling of Constantine’s men, it still reflects a policy of short-sightedness and one hopes it doesn’t come back to bite the management when the UAE tournament gets underway.