India’s qualification campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup has long ended and along with the car crash of a campaign, another shot at the playing in the biggest tournament in the world has gone.
The Indian squad, which ended up with a solitary win and seven defeats from its eight qualifying matches, had an average age of 29, and looked legged and worn down after the campaign, which had its fair share of downs, but no ups.
Head coach Stephen Constantine had called up a probable 30-man squad to face the 114th-ranked Puerto Ricans in Mumbai. Of the 30, five were uncapped and had impressed in domestic competitions to make the cut for the national team.
Most of the squad’s composition is unsurprising – a majority are from traditional stables and powerhouses of football such as Kerala, West Bengal and the seven North-Eastern states – Manipur and Mizoram especially. Some states like Punjab have found good representation with five players.
The spread of players from the states is too uneven and proves a chunk of players keep coming from small pockets of the country. While that statistic in itself is nothing to worry about as there are similar pockets all around the world – Catalonia and Basque Country in Spain, Merseyside in England, Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany – there is something to be said about the lack of more coverage in India’s scouting system.
One-third of the players in the squad, or 11, originate or were born in the North East. The growing influences of Manipur and Mizoram, with four and three players respectively, as footballing superpowers within the country cannot be ignored anymore.
As a single state, West Bengal leads the way with six players including three of the back four who featured in the game against Puerto Rico – Arnab Mondal, Pritam Kotal and Narayan Das. Punjab is second with five players – centre-back Sandesh Jhingan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu – from the northern state.
Ace striker Sunil Chhetri was born in Secunderabad, Telengana, but is of Indo-Nepalese heritage. Kerala and Goa, also considered important footballing centres in the country, have just one and two players in the probables respectively.
Twenty-four players of the side have signed and/or played for an Indian Super League franchise (some will make their debuts this season) and an I-League side in the last 12 months. All except three – Gurpreet Sandhu, who takes care of keeping duties for Norwegian club Stabæk, India’s latest debutant and Dempo midfielder Germanpreet Singh, and uncapped 19-year-old Isaac Vanmalsawma, who is a midfielder for Shillong Lajong – play or have signed on for ISL clubs.
Eight of the 30-man squad were on Bengaluru FC’s roster for the 2016 I-League season. The contribution of the I-League champions has been immense and it shows in the composition of the squad.
Seven of the squad play for Goa-based clubs Salgaocar FC, Sporting Clube de Goa and Dempo SC, all of whom are yet to confirm their participation in this year’s I-League. Kolkata’s leading teams – Mohun Bagan with three and East Bengal with four players – contribute a total of seven players.
Depending on how the merger of the I-League and ISL clubs go and the length of the proposed merged league, the 24 players in both the leagues will have to choose between their I-League and ISL clubs. Bengaluru FC’s integration, in particular, will be interesting to watch as they are almost guaranteed a place in the merged league given their excellent track record in the last three years since formation.
Age and experience
Post the debacle in the World Cup qualifiers, there has been an infusion of young blood into the squad – the average age of the squad to face Puerto Rico was a remarkable 23.5; this has also led to a string of improved performances since the end of India’s Road to Russia, including the 6-1 demolition of Laos.
Interestingly, India’s best player is also its oldest. Chhetri, at 32, has scored more goals in official FIFA matches than twice the goals of the rest of the squad – 51 to 25, which include 16 scored by Jeje Lalpekhlua, who is expected to fill Chhetri’s shoes when the Bengaluru FC and Mumbai City striker decides to call it a day. At the other end of the spectrum are Chennaiyin FC’s fantastic 18-year-old prospects, forward Daniel Lalhimpuia and uncapped midfielder Vinit Rai.
This is a young, bright squad with the potential to qualify for the Asian Football Confederation Cup, Asia’s equivalent of the European Championship.
This bunch is also inexperienced at the international level – barring Chhetri (91 caps), Lalpekhlua (37 caps), defender Arnab Mondal (25 caps) and veteran goalkeeper Subrata Pal (64 caps), every squad member has played below 25 matches at the highest level. The average number of caps is 12, with Chhetri having made a fourth of the squad’s combined international appearances.
Narayan Das, Pritam Kotal, Pronay Halder, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Sumeet Passi, Halicharan Narzary, Germanpreet Singh, Issac Vanmalsawma, Daniel Lalhimpuia and Chinlensana Singh – all players for India’s U-23, U-19 and U-16 squads have been promoted, and are expected to form the core of the team for the next decade.
With seven players aged 20 or below, this impetus has come at the right time for Indian football and brings with it, new hope. A whole new generation of footballing superstars in India has emerged and will look to be the mainstays for the Blue Tigers through their 2019 journey and beyond.