Once the 2018 World Cup finished, the focus for most Indian football fans was the 2019 AFC Asian Cup for which the country had qualified after an eight-year hiatus.
The Indian national men's senior football team had three FIFA international windows between July 2018 and January 2019 to fine-tune preparations. However, they ended up playing only two friendlies out of a possible six!
A team like India, ranked 15th in Asia and 97th in the world, neither have a robust domestic league structure in which players would play at least 30-40 games a season nor do they have the history of being frequent participants in international tournaments.
To make matters worse, India is among the bottom three teams out of the 24 that are going to be at the Asian Cup that have played the least number of friendlies; tied with Yemen (two) and topping the list peculiarly is Turkmenistan, who haven't played at all!
Australia come fourth from bottom having played three games after taking the September window off. But it would be foolish to compare India and Australia in the same breath as the latter come fresh off a World Cup and are the defending champions.
India, in this period, started off with the senior team rested for the regional South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship in Bangladesh in September. One could argue that it was Team India that participated but head coach Stephen Constantine selected an Under-23 squad, out of which only Subhasish Bose and Anirudh Thapa are core members of the senior team.
Two group games, a semi-final and a final later, the assembled India side still could not lift the title after the Maldives beat them 2-1 in the final.
Cut to October, India made their first ever trip to China where they held Team Dragon to a goalless draw. The following month, they travelled to Amman where a game, almost on the verge of being cancelled ended up as the last recognized FIFA international friendly India would play before the Asian Cup.
On the other hand, India’s opponents in Group A which include hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain collectively have played 15 official friendlies till November. UAE went out of their way to organise an unofficial game in August against Andorra in Austria.
While Thailand took the September window off, they are playing in the 2018 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Cup where they are guaranteed four group stage games and also have an opportunity to play the two-legged semi-finals and possibly even the two-legged final.
The South-East Asian nation could get to play eight competitive games and coupled with their two friendlies, their tally of games could potentially hit double digits. However, four important Thai players, who ply their trade in Japan have not been included in their AFF Cup squad.
If one takes a look at Philippines, first-time entrants in the Asian Cup, they could play 13 games in this period. This includes their games in the ongoing AFF Cup and potential semifinals and finals. They also have lined up a game with Vietnam in Qatar on New Year’s Eve.
Palestine, who in their first appearance lost all group games in 2015 seem to have notched their preparations up this time around. They won the Bangabandhu Gold Cup after playing four games. Plus, they organised two unofficial games in August and have three friendlies lined up in December, which means they could play 13 games before their first Group B match against Syria in Sharjah.
Another extraordinary case of accumulating precious game time for the first team would be the Vietnamese FA after a lull in September. Their participation in the AFF Cup also guarantees them four competitive plus two and/or four knockout games. But, with no country ready to play them in October, their first team flew down to South Korea to play three Korean club sides.
The All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) inability to secure two games in the last couple of windows could cost team India dearly. Bad weather conditions prevented a chunk of the Indian contingent to reach Amman on time for their game on 17 November against Jordan as team India in entirety could only assemble with less than 24 hours to kickoff. That game was initially called off but later both parties went ahead. If not, the senior India team would have played a sum total of one game in three windows!
Even then, there was nothing Stephen Constantine would have learnt from this game given most of the players were playing out of position.
Earlier in 2018, India had booked Syria and Saudi Arabia for a game in October and November respectively but both pulled out. Incidentally, it was Saudi Arabia who then chose to play Jordan on 20 November, the reason as to why the Jordan-India game could not have been rescheduled in the first place. And it was a demand from India that they want a home game aganst Saudi that led to the cancellation of the fixture.
Looking ahead, the Indian FA and their Omani counterparts have agreed in principle on a game on 27 December in the UAE. Apart from that the Blue Tigers do not have anything else on their plate before their Asian Cup opener against Thailand on 6 January.
In this regard as well, the AIFF could have a lot to learn. The national camp for the Asian Cup commences on 17 December in New Delhi but by that time, Yemen, will have doubled up their count to four matches as they have games with Tajikistan and Palestine lined up in Qatar. It remains to be seen if at all India does play more than one game in the 20-day period.