In the end, the euphoria was short-lived.
New found optimism vanished in the space of four minutes as Indian football reverted to type. The high lasted for all of eight days, but India’s Asian Cup journey is over. Diagnosis will follow, post-mortems will be carried out, and heads will be scratched as to how India failed to progress out of Group A after winning the opener 4-1 against Thailand.
The truth, unappetising as it may seem, is that India weren’t good enough against Bahrain. Temporary fluctuations in form had tempted a conclusion of the opposite but Miroslav Soukup’s team squeezed a result when it mattered.
January 15, 2019 will be the start of a new four year cycle for 2023. For now, India’s adventure in UAE has ended.
The hurt will be followed by the anger that will result in isolating scapegoats. Everyone, including player and the now-resigned coach, are likely to be singled out. Every single element involved in the grand scheme of things, apart from the very system that is.
The nature of defeat and exit can provoke polar opposite reactions in the Indian football. This was more of a loss that brought old wounds to the fore, limp as it was. If the face of Indian sport could be transformed by merely chopping and changing the sports persons and their coaches, Indian football needn’t have bothered after the first false dawn.
The win over Thailand was an espresso shot to a broken system, the fault-lines patched up by super glue. The loss against UAE didn’t quite prove a seismic shock but a temporary boost to the lingering hopes. Style, nuance, tactics aside, the conclusions will have read differently had the 90th minute penalty not been conceded. Such is the shallow view of development that a single isolated moment in a match can swing views so decisively, almost wildly.
To suggest that three matches in 10 days, standard tournament procedure, was too much to take would be misleading. This sinusoidal swinging from high to low is anticipated, given low expectations and even lower recall value. The bottom-line, the ugly one? One win, one loss, one mega tournament, one chance to progress to the Asian Cup’s round of 16 are blips on the landscape. Making them bigger than they appear to be, could result in potential blinding.
The fact that senior players of the team spoke about the fact that three games in nine days was a stretch, should raise alarms. This suggests that the rigours of domestic football are not up to the standard that international football and tournaments such as the Asian Cup demand.
A lot has been made of improved fitness levels, but the third game against Bahrain betrayed signs of a not-so-permanent progress, as India all but threw in the towel after a late equaliser. The struggle for financial judiciousness at club level will make the transition to a longer league a challenge.
The influence of global football on these shores has opened up opinions on ‘style’. The average Asian Cup footballer has a style that has been practised and perfected for close to two decades. With that being the least time needed to implement a particular playing ‘style’, the time to think about the 2019 Asian Cup was in 1999 or earlier.
The ‘defibrillator’ effort can be intoxicating, as instant gratification and an opportunity for a quick photo-op can over-power the grit needed for long-term development. The temptation to manipulate the Fifa rankings over the effort to produce players capable of holding that spot or going higher is understandable.
The result will be construed as a kick in the teeth in some quarters and the tournament a sign of progress in others. As always, the interpretation by the powers in charge will decide how the outcome of India’s most important tournament since 2011 translates into changes in approach.
With Constantine gone, succession plans must be put in place before the new cycle begins. Eight years apart, Bahrain have defeated India at the Asian Cup, by margins of 5-2 (2011) and 1-0. The authorities of Indian football must now decide whether the eight years of investment, promotional campaigns and talk of ‘historic’ results in these eight years, have been worth it.