Dubai: India's heartbreaking defeat to Bahrain that led to a painful exit from the 2019 AFC Asian Cup has left a bad taste. The agony of defeat has overshadowed the fact that India were just four minutes away from a place in the Round of 16, and a goal away from winning group A, until tragedy struck.
India's eventual result in the AFC Asian Cup was an expected one, but the positives " plenty of them " lie in their journey in the UAE.
India will perhaps be the only team with three points do not qualify for the knockout stages and certainly, their predicament in the Asian Cup can be put down to misfortune.
India played well enough to be in the last-16, but as cynical as it sounds, football is all about making the most of your good moments. The Blue Tigers fell short on that front and had to learn the lesson in the hardest way possible.
Will this Asian Cup be path-breaking? That depends on actions that follow the competition, but there is certainly mileage that's there to be exploited from India's performance in the three group stage games.
Stephen Constantine's men arrived with a reputation of being mere tourists when they touched down in UAE, but their football has proven that they could give anyone a run for their money on their day. India's potential to be a force in Asian football in the near future hasn't gone unnoticed.
"These Indian players are very good. They caused us (UAE) lot of problems with their speed and we had to make changes to our game to be able to get closer to our goal. I sense this Indian team will be a force in the future tournaments," UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni had said after his side ride some luck to beat India 2-0.
The Bahrain coach Miroslav Soukup too hailed India's defending in their 1-0 win and felt it was very hard for his team to eke out the victory. "I have a lot of respect for India for the way they played and defended. Their goalkeeper was excellent. He made some spectacular saves. India made it very hard for us to create chances and it was a very hard match for us."
Iran's Carlos Queiroz was also impressed by the Indian team's progress and reportedly had even offered coach Stephen Constantine to play a friendly game against Iran ahead of the Asian Cup. India's schedule had no room for one such game, but the Indian team's progress still caught the former Real Madrid manager's eye.
"It is a completely different team since we played them. I saw you guys playing recently. The Indian team has made great progress," he said.
"When you perform like this in the first game of the Asian Cup, it only shows that you are going in the right direction," Queiroz added.
India have managed to change perceptions here in UAE and hopefully, it will translate to more friendlies with the big teams. Especially after the performance against UAE, the big teams in Asia wouldn't mind playing this Indian side as they will be assured of a competitive game.
"You guys historically can tell me how many records we've broken in the last four years. All the players playing in India, the 47 international caps that we've given, the qualifying for the Asian cup to begin with. These boys can go home, they gave absolutely everything in every game and every training session. They've made history on several occasions in my four years," Constantine said after the game against Bahrain, reminding reporters of the progress the Indian team has made under his management.
While Constantine was slightly fortunate to be around the time Indian football benefited from the money, professionalism and better quality of coaching that the ISL brought with its advent, he still carried out his job to perfection.
There has been a stir in Indian football over the last few years. Implementation of the club licensing criteria at many I-League clubs have helped the youth structure and so has the increase in the number of licensed coaches at the youth level.
The current scenario is by no means rosy and there's a hell lot of work to be done, but it can't be denied that there has been a notable shift for the better in the last few years. Constantine has enjoyed the limited rewards it has brought.
The mistake Indian football authorities could commit would be to rest on the laurels of India's much-improved performance at the Asian Cup. Yes, there was some good work done which resulted in this performance, but as it was harshly brought to understand, that amount of work wasn't enough to qualify for the last-16.
The misfortune or India's missed opportunities wouldn't have come back to bite the Indian team had they possessed more quality at their disposal. In a game where they were prevented from playing their game, India struggled hard. Against Bahrain, India failed to create a single chance of note and could barely hold the ball in the dying minutes. A bit more quality, especially in midfield and defence would have seen India through not just against Bahrain, but perhaps even against UAE.
The hosts were able to punish India thanks to their superior individual quality despite being outplayed by India as a team on the day. The Asian Cup has made it clear that India need to go with more quality and depth in their squad to compete at the latter stages and that will only happen investments in the grassroots.
Changing coaches or strategies won't work if there is no talent coming through the ranks. With the given set of players, the performances can't get better than what we saw against Thailand and UAE. India peaked in the AFC Asian Cup in 2019 and for 2023, the team needs more to compete better.
The 2019 AFC Asian Cup campaign has earned India a lot of respect as a footballing nation, but the men who run the football in the country cannot take progress for granted. The Asian Cup is high in Indian football after a series of low, and the AIFF must make sure, there's no drastic dip again. Indian football has some hope again, and historically as an Indian fan, that's the time you worry the most.