On Saturday evening, the Indian national football team will be playing its first international match in Mumbai after 61 years, hosting an under-prepared Puerto Rico at the Mumbai Football Arena. This is the first official fixture for the Blue Tigers since their resounding 6-1 victory over Laos at Guwahati in June, which earned them a place in the final qualification round for the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup 2019.

Last month, they defeated Bhutan 3-0 in an away match, but that fixture was not recognised by the game’s global governing body since it was not played on a FIFA approved date.

This time around, the competition is expected to be tougher. India, who are now the 152nd side in the world, will be up against a side sitting 38 places above them, at 114th. While the odds are stacked against Sunil Chhetri’s team, there are reasons to be hopeful about an upset, especially with the recent developments around the Puerto Rico side.

Constantine eyes his chance

Stephen Constantine, who took charge of the Indian team in February 2015, has handed debuts to more than 25 players in the last 18 months. While India lost five consecutive World Cup qualifiers in 2015, they have made a comeback of sorts, winning seven of their last nine fixtures.

However, most of these victories have come against either nations within the South Asian Football Federation, or countries ranked below India. This will be a big test for Stephen’s new look unit to prove their credentials as the coach has finally zeroed in on a set team after a series of experimentation.

The team will be missing a couple of important players – Keegan Pereira and Udanta Singh – owing to injuries, but otherwise the British coach will have a full arsenal to choose from. Regular faces like Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Arnab Mondal, Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu are all set to start.

A win in this fixture will earn India 219 points in the current ranking framework, while a draw will fetch 73 points. This can have a huge implication on India’s fortunes in the near future, since the FIFA ranking will be used to decide the groups for the next round of Asian Cup qualification. A decent jump in points can ensure that India are placed in a relatively easier group.

“For the Asian Cup qualification, which is in January, we, as of today, could be placed in pot 3. So if we play a team ranked over 130 and possibly beat them, we could make it into pot 2,” pointed out Kushal Das, the general secretary of All India Football Federation, in July. The organisation has kept its word in terms of setting up the opportunity. The onus is on the footballers now.

Indian football has reached a stage where winning the SAFF Championship is expected, more so with Afghanistan leaving, and the main target now is to qualify for the Asian Cup. Their performances against the West Asian nations continue to be underwhelming, and it is important that India gets to play countries like Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam in the next round.

Puerto Rico are in a mess

So, the one-off friendly against Puerto Rico, played at home, is of paramount importance. It may also decide whether there will be a managerial change next year. Constantine’s contract will run out in February and in all probability, India will not play any matches till then, with the Indian Super League and I-League going on in full swing. The AIFF officials have not yet taken a call on an extension will be offered, and it may all come down to the result of this match.

The coach, however, has shown his prudence once again in choosing the opponent. The “Blue Hurricanes” are ranked higher than India only because of a recent improvement in ranking. The country was ranked in the 170s during the early part of the year and 158th till as late as June.

They are no footballing superpower and are travelling with only 16 players, with three strikers not joining the team. In the last seven days, they have lost two friendly ties against the Dominican Republic with a combined score-line of 6-0. The assistant coach has put in his papers recently and they will play the match without having a single practice session on Indian soil.

With the rivals caught in confusion, India has a chance to script a memorable win. The last time India won bragging rights in a friendly tie against a side ranked at least 30 places above them was also under Constantine, when they staged a major upset by defeating Kuwait 3-2 in an away match in November 2004, when the West Asian country was ranked 60th, 78 places ahead.

The national team has played before empty stands recently at Kochi and Guwahati, but the early trends of ticket sales in Mumbai indicate things will be much better this time around. With kick-off scheduled for 8 pm, it can become an evening to remember for Indian football fans.

Atanu Mitra has been covering Indian football for more than four years. He tweets here.