2019 Asian Cup: When the journey mattered more than the destination

NEW DELHI,30TH DECEMBER: The AFC Asian Cup 2019 sits dearly in the memories of the modern Indian Football fan. The Blue Tigers lost two of the three matches and failed to make it into the knockout rounds by a last-minute penalty goal conceded against Bahrain.

But not everything in life and football is measured by success on paper.

It remains the only occasion when India qualified for the AFC Asian Cup after participating in the qualifiers on a home-and-away basis, a monumental campaign that began two years before the tournament itself, with the eventual top spot in Group A of the Third Round Qualifiers being sealed by India in Goa, by dint of a 2-2 draw against Myanmar in their penultimate match of the campaign.

The Blue Tigers had to contend with the likes of the Kyrgyz Republic, Myanmar, and Macau in Round 3 of the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers and ended the successful campaign with four wins, one draw, and a solitary loss, the last of which came in the last game, a dead rubber from India’s perspective, against the Kyrgyz Republic (1-2).

Jeje Lalpekhlua, the former India marksman, who hung up his boots earlier this year, recalled the days with much determination. “It was a tough campaign,” sighed Jeje. “We had to fight tooth and nail in every match. It was a really special moment for us to finally get there in the end.”

The strength of character that the team showed during the qualification campaign could well have stemmed from a generation of players that were either not picked for the final squad in the 2011 edition, or faced the disappointment of a failed qualification campaign for the 2015 edition.

“I had never played a major AFC international tournament before, even at the senior level. It was a similar situation for all the other guys around me – all except Sunil Chhetri,” said Jeje. “So we were all quite determined to not watch it on TV.”

The qualification campaign was one that was carried out by a team that mostly consisted of a fresh batch of players, with the stars of yesteryears waning away. Not everyone that played their respective roles during the qualification campaign, however, made it to the final squad, a part and parcel of the game, says Jeje.

The likes of goalkeeper Subrata Paul, defender Arnab Mondal, midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh, striker Robin Singh, among a few others, had played their roles over the course of time in the National Team in the years leading up to AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, but were eventually not a part of the final squad that represented India in Asia.

“The night before our first game (against Thailand), we all met after the team dinner and our captain gave an inspiring speech about the struggles and sacrifices that we had all made to reach the place that we were all in, that day,” said Jeje. “We also spoke about those who had helped us get there but were not in the squad in that tournament for various reasons, be it injury or form. It’s all a part of football. They may not have been physically with us, but they were very much present in spirit.”

A memorable night against Thailand

The Blue Tigers began the 2019 AFC Asian Cup with an inspired performance against Thailand, a 4-1 victory, that set the country into dreamland. While that was followed by defeats against hosts UAE (0-2) and Bahrain (0-1), the game against their Southeast Asian counterparts remains India’s only Asian Cup win in 55 years.

Captain Chhetri scored twice, while Jeje and Anirudh Thapa netted one each in the 4-1 win.

Thapa said, looking back at the game, “That was definitely one of the favourite moments of my career so far. Winning that at stage against a team like Thailand, and with me scoring that goal, was quite special.”

For Jeje, it was his one and only chance to score at a tournament of such a level, one that he grabbed with both hands, or rather with the toe of his right boot.

“I’ve always regretted not playing an AFC tournament at any level earlier. In 2011, I was knocking on the doors of the national team but was not picked. I only made my debut later that year. We were also disappointed to not qualify for the 2015 edition. So when I finally came on as a substitute in that game, I felt that it was my only opportunity to score,” he said.

The Blue Tigers have built on the 2019 Asian Cup, and are now looking forward to the 2023 edition in Doha Qatar, but the win against Thailand in Abu Dhabi, and the fervent qualification campaign that preceded it, have been imprinted in the memory chips of Indian Football as a resurgent moment.

2019 Asian Cup India squad:

Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Vishal Kaith, Amrinder Singh.
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Sarthak Golui, Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathodika, Salam Ranjan Singh, Subhasish Bose, Narayan Das.
Midfielders: Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Germanpreet Singh, Pronay Halder, Anirudh Thapa, Vinit Rai, Rowllin Borges, Ashique Kuruniyan, Halicharan Narzary.
Forwards: Sumeet Passi, Balwant Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalp

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