By Michael Church
REUTERS - Qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup finals is essential for India if football in the country is to continue to develop in the wake of the success of the Indian Super League, coach Stephen Constantine told Reuters.
India, currently ranked 132nd in the FIFA world rankings, have never played in the World Cup finals and kick off the latest phase of their attempt to qualify for the Asian Cup on Tuesday when they take on Myanmar in Yangon.
They last qualified for the Asian Cup in 2011 but, with the country due to host the under-17 World Cup later this year, Constantine believes booking a spot in the United Arab Emirates in two year's time would give the game a significant boost.
"I think it would be huge given the fact that it would come two years after we have hosted the U-17 World Cup," the Englishman said in an interview.
"We've also got the Asian Games in 2018 (in Jakarta) and have got the chance to build there.
"I think it would be another sign of continued progress and consistency, which is what we've lacked in the past. We really need to qualify to keep the momentum in Indian football going. Every country needs to see success."
Interest in the game among India's 1.3 billion population has been boosted by the 2014 launch of the eight-team Indian Super League, which has seen players such as Nicolas Anelka and Diego Forlan come out of retirement to play.
But while the game has been showing signs of growth, the national team has achieved little.
India's qualification for the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar came after the country won the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament for the lowest ranked nations in the continent.
That was their first appearance since 1984 and while they are still the dominant force in South Asia, Indian football remains a long way behind the likes of Japan, Australia, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Constantine returned to India for his second stint as coach two years ago after India failed to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup and feels he has introduced a level of competition in the squad that was previously absent.
"You can say I have introduced 30 players over the last two years and we have expanded the pool of players," said Constantine, whose side will also face Macau and Kyrgyzstan in Asian Cup qualifying.
"That has given the opportunity to many more players to play in the national team and that's a major reason we are in the position we are in now, because now everybody is fighting for places, it's not a given. You need to have people who want to have the same thing."
While progress for the national team has been slow, there have been successes.
Bengaluru FC were AFC Cup runners-up last year, the first time an Indian side played in the decider in a continental club competition.
The ISL has boosted the profile of the sport both inside and outside India, a fact Constantine believes will further improve the game in the long run.
"The ISL has brought the world to India," said Constantine. "Everybody in the world knows of the Indian Super League... the interest that it has generated in Indian football in India, never mind outside, has been phenomenal."
Constantine said even if the marquee names were not taking the ISL too seriously and only playing for the money, it was still worth bringing them over.
"Are there things that could be done better, or are there things that would better improve the development? For sure," he said.
"But (football) is now firmly at the forefront. You have people like Anelka, Zico and Diego Forlan coming here (and) the fact they are here playing football and Indians are getting to see these guys they ordinarily would not, has created a huge interest in Indian football.
"More kids want to come and play and more coaches want to coach and hopefully more clubs and academies will spring up. And when India says they want to do something, trust me they do it."
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)