Three Wise Men dream of displaying the right intent in Doha

DOHA, QATAR: India are all set to participate in the AFC Asian Cup for the fifth time in history, once the ball gets rolling in Doha, Qatar, on January 13, the previous editions being in 1964, 1984, 2011, and 2019.

While the first edition remains India’s most successful stint at the Asian Cup after they finished runners-up behind Israel (it was a round-robin tournament), the Blue Tigers have never made it past the group stage after that.

Many of the current batch of players, however, have the unique experience of playing in multiple editions of the Asian Cup, something that India were not privy to previously. As many as eight players in the current squad have experienced the magic of the Asian Cup final rounds before, while two players at opposite ends of the pitch have been a part of the continental showpiece on three occasions – Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sunil Chhetri.

While the 2011 edition was remembered for former India captain Subrata Paul’s exceptional performance between the sticks against a strong Australia side, an 18-year-old Gurpreet was sitting on the sidelines, soaking it all in.

“The experience of sharing the dressing room with the likes of Subrata Paul, Bhaichung Bhutia, Renedy Singh, and all these legends and seeing them at the height of their careers was an absolute joy. I used to enjoy myself in training a lot,” Gurpreet said to AIFF.

“I would get pushed around a lot as a young, skinny, lanky keeper. But I was just like a sponge, learning on and off the pitch. Now as one of the senior members of this team, I just share whatever knowledge I have acquired in these years.”

The 31-year-old believes that the transition of the Indian team began after the 2011 Asian Cup, which has now resulted in a bunch of experienced players in the 2023 edition.

“There’s been a big transition over the years. A lot of the players in 2011 were on the verge of ending their careers, so we had fresh players come in after that,” he said. “Now we are at a stage where many of the boys have already played an Asian Cup before – Sandesh (Jhingan), Subha (Subhasish Bose), and Anirudh Thapa were all part of the Asian Cup last time and will be playing their second edition this time around.

“Over the years, this has grown to be an experienced and educated lot in terms of footballing aptitude, albeit a hungrier side,” said India’s No. 1 custodian.

For the Blue Tigers goalkeeper, turning up with the right intent could be all it takes. “I’ve learnt over the years that one needs to show the right intent that we have. As a player, I did not know how important it could be to show intent in the last two Asian Cups. In 2011, I was just 18 and was lucky to even be in the side, and in 2019, I was playing at that stage for the first time, but I think I have the correct experience now to come with that intent and have it rub off on the others,” he said.

Centreback Sandesh Jhingan has been a key fixture at the heart of the Indian defence for the better part of a decade now. The 30-year-old has played a key role in India’s qualification campaign for both the 2019 and 2023 editions. However, the defender feels that the Blue Tigers are at a stage where qualification for the AFC Asian Cup should no longer be something to celebrate.

“When we had all just come into the national team at that time, Gurpreet, Amrinder (Singh), myself, and we all had a dream to see India in the World Cup one day. That may still be a distant dream, but being a regular in the Asian Cup is certainly one step closer to it,” said Jhingan. “I feel we are now at a stage where qualification to the Asian Cup should be normal and that we should not celebrate it.

“We should instead be looking forward to making it to the next stage, which is to qualify from the group stage onwards,” he said. “For sure, it feels good to play in consecutive Asian Cups, but right now, it’s time to work more with more intensity and passion.”

The Blue Tigers centreback remembers the 2019 edition of the Asian Cup clearly, when India won the first game against Thailand, before losing against hosts UAE and Bahrain, to be knocked out.

“Everyone talks about the Bahrain game, but I think we should have done better against the UAE. We should have taken our chances against them. This is a stage where the margin for error is very low, and even the smallest of mistakes can really hurt you,” he said. 

Fullback Subhasish Bose chimed the same tune as Jhingan and said that the next step for the Blue Tigers is to attempt to make it past the group stage, no matter the challenges.

“We did well in 2019 to win the first game against Thailand but lost the next two games. This time, we have a difficult challenge ahead, but our mentality should be to try and qualify for the knockout round,” he said. “We have certainly improved a lot as a team in the last few years, and now we want to prove it on the pitch.”

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