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AFC Asian Cup 2019: Imperative that India's training camp starts by December 10

12:03 PM GMT+8 15/06/2018
Stephen Constantine India Puerto Rico International Friendly
The Englishman's wish to have all India players available to him by December 10 needs to be granted...

While the dust of India’s Intercontinental Cup triumph was still settling, head coach Stephen Constantine was laying down a marker in the post-match press conference.

Inevitably, the focus was on the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup to be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in January next year. The Englishman stated that he has requested the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to ensure that the national team players are released for the pre-tournament training camp which is scheduled to commence on December 10.

India are slated to open their continental campaign against Thailand on January 6, 2019. That means that the training camp will be just short of a month.

Having had qualified for a major tournament after a gap of eight years, Constantine and his men know that they have to make it count if Indian football wants to make a giant step forward.

It is the timing of the tournament that throws a spanner in the works for the AIFF and Indian football. With December set to be a bust month for both the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL) if last year’s schedules are anything to go by, it presents a conundrum to the AIFF and administrators of India’s two top-flight leagues.

With the tournament slated to culminate on February 1, 2019 with the finals, that would mean almost two months of duty for the Indian team if Constantine is granted his wish. While a run to the finals is far-fetched for even the most optimistic of die-hard fans, progression to the knock-out stage is highly desired if Indian football really wants to make significant strides forward. Even that on paper looks difficult given the lack of preparations for the Indian national team.

Realistically, a window needs to be carved out for Constantine and his men in their quest for the continent’s biggest prize. That would mean that the stakeholders in Indian football have a very important decision to make and they might need to act soon.

Should the I-League and the ISL be stopped for the duration of the training camp and tournament? The answer needs to be yes if common sense is to prevail. No ISL or I-League club will want to be without their star players for such a long period of time. It is time for these leagues to show their support to the national team and any decision otherwise would make them look daft.

One of the major reasons why the team needs to be together by December 10th is the fact that the fitness levels of the national team when compared with those of the domestic clubs is certainly higher. Partly also because in majority of the ISL and I-League clubs, there is no monitoring of the diet and nutrition. You would often see the players lining up to eat at five-star buffets with no check on what is being served. An interview with India’s sports scientist Danny Deigan would give more insights into this.

In fact, the AIFF and other stakeholders need only look at the preparation in the run-in of the 2011 AFC Asian Cup for proof in the pudding. Then coach Bob Houghton had been given almost a free hand with the national team players in the build up to the event.

The 2011 edition was held in January as well but the preparations for the Indian side started well in advance. From June, 2010, Houghton was allowed to take away his core group of players for the big tournament exclusively to prepare for the showdown.

Training camps in Dubai and Portugal followed while the players hardly set foot back on Indian soil for the duration.  India were then pitted in a much stronger group in that edition than the one they have been drawn in for the 2019 edition. With Australia, South Korea and Bahrain to deal with in their group, the Blue Tigers bowed out with a whimper with three straight losses.

This time, India have hosts UAE, Thailand and once again Bahrain to contend with in Group A. Though the draw seems easier on paper, qualification to the knock-out stages is still going to be a big mountain to climb.

On top of that, the organisers have erred heavily so far in not being able to find quality oppositions for Constantine’s men to play with in the run-up to the tournament. The participating teams in the four-nation Intercontinental Trophy were all ranked below India and to add salt to injury, even then they were mostly second-or-third string oppositions.

Though some more friendlies have been penned in the coming months, it is safe to say that it has not been an ideal preparation for the Blue Tigers so far.

A training camp 20-odd days before the start of a major international tournament is the standard norm for almost any international team and India should be no different.  When Houghton could be afforded more than six months of free-hand, under a month’s time for Constantine is a drop in the ocean. There is absolutely nothing outlandish in his demands compared to what his fellow Englishman Houghton had desired.

“Obviously, we'd like to get players on December 10.”

For the good of Indian football, Constantine and his team needs to be granted their way. And for that, the ISL has to show its support. Anything else would not be conducive for Indian football.

It’s time to support and get behind the national team and not merely engage in lip service.