AFC Asian Cup 2019: India brace for Thailand encounter

Mihir Vasavda
India skipper Sunil Chhetri (extreme left) insists they are not taking the match against Thailand lightly.

The last time India played at the Asian Cup, in 2011, almost half of the current team members weren't even in their teens. Some, in fact, had just started to take football seriously. And the last time India won a match at the Asian Cup, no one from this generation, or the previous one, was even born.

That win, two actually, came in 1964 when India finished runners-up in a four-team Asian Cup. Since then, the national team has qualified for the continental showpiece event just twice-in 1984 and 2011. And on both occasions, they have returned without a win.

That, there is a genuine feeling within the team set-up, could change on Sunday. India will open their Asian Cup campaign tonight against Thailand in Abu Dhabi. It's one of the rare continental matches where India feel like equals going into the match, well aware that if they can defend the same way like they did against China and show some spark, some courage going forward, they can even snatch an improbable win.

Thailand, after all, are ranked 11 places below India in the world rankings. But if that's the only thing India are basing their hopes on, they might be in for a rude surprise. For Thailand are one of the most improved teams in the continent, a claim that even India have made but haven't backed up with as much conviction as their South-East Asian rivals.

While India fancy their chances, the match can prove how far India have fallen behind the rest of Asia in terms of development and producing players who are tactically and technically sound. It's something India captain Sunil Chhetri had pointed out soon after India's draw was announced, while trying to temper down expectations.

"Only because we are not facing Australia and South Korea people think it’s going to be easy. It is not. Thailand is the most improved side in Asia in the last six years," Chhetri had said. "They are competing with the best in Asia. Australia and Japan are finding difficult to beat Thailand."

What Chhetri didn't say, rather couldn't admit, that national team's recent surge has been a result of playing a string of lower-ranked opponents who aren't in the same class as Thailand or India's other two opponents in Pool A, UAE and Bahrain.

Thailand have historically held an edge over India. The last time when the two sides met, in a friendly back in June 2010 at Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium, Thailand had notched up a narrow 2-1 win. Despite the defeat, it looked like a clash between two equals. But since then, Thailand have zoomed ahead of India in terms of development.

Their restructured league, which was established around the same time as the I-League, became stronger with every season and began to produce a few outstanding players. It helped that the Thai FA appointed a domestic legend as the national team coach. Kiatisuk Senamuang, the country's all-time top scorer, was appointed as the national team's manager in 2014.

Few understood Thai football like Senamuang did and he used his stature convince the clubs to release players for longer durations for the national team and ensured the federation kept them busy by arranging matches against good quality opponents.

His reign coincided with one of the finest generations of Thai players. Playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin plays in the Japanese League and was in its best-11 last year. Full-back Theerathon Bunmathan plays on loan for Vissel Kobe-the Japanese club for which Andres Iniesta plays. Striker Teerasil Dangda also plays in Japan.

Under him, Thailand enjoyed their best World Cup qualifying campaign since 2002, falling just short of making the cut for Russia 2018. Senamuang replaced by Serbian Milovan Rajevac, who led Ghana to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup, in 2017. Under him, they’ve only gotten stronger, although it may not reflect in the rankings. A team that used to lose by five goals to Saudi Arabia had narrowed the deficit to just one goal while Asian champions Australia were held to a 2-2 draw.

But not all's well within the Thai camp. According to various reports, Rajevac has come under considerable pressure for adopting a conservative playing style for a team that had blossomed by playing free-flowing, attacking football.

The semi final defeat to Malaysia at the AFF Suzuki Cup last month followed by a loss to Oman on January 2 in the final preparatory match before the Asian Cup has attracted more criticism.

The perceived trouble in the Thai camp, coupled with a few morale-boosting performance of their own, has given India the hope that they can pull off an upset. But for all their claims, the Asian Cup opener can potentially be an eye-opener for Indian football.