Indian football coach Stephen Constantine believes the team can make it out of the group stages of the forthcoming Asian Cup, a tournament in which the country has time and again failed to shine. "I honestly believe we can get out of the group and that is our target. Of course, we need to be on our game in all three games and we will take one game at a time," Constantine told IANS from Abu Dhabi. In their previous three attempts, India's best performance in the continental competition came 55 years ago when they finished runners-up.
India had gained a direct qualification to the finals of the tournament in 1964 after several Western Zone teams pulled out due to political reasons.
Under English coach Harry Wright, India had got the better of South Korea and Hong Kong to cement their second place in the four-nation round-robin format meet.
The team had to wait 20 years to qualify for the finals again, and on both occasions (1984, 2011) bowed out of the group stages.
Under Constantine, the Sunil Chhetri-led side has done well in recent times, attaining close to an all-time-high FIFA ranking and qualifying for the finals of the Asian Cup as group-toppers ahead of Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, and Macau.
The English-Cypriot coach, who is in his second stint with the national team, said the fact that they have the second youngest team in the competition augurs well for Indian football going ahead.
"We are, in fact, the second youngest team in the Asian Cup and that is a huge plus for Indian football going forward as these boys now go into the future with the experience of a major event.
"The experience of the older lads is also important and I am sure the youngsters will do India proud," the 56-year old stated.
In the lead up to the big-ticket meet, India has played China, Jordan, and Oman in preparatory friendlies. Constantine had previously said the boys could do with a few more games with top Asian teams.
"Yes, we could have done with a couple of more games but it wasn't for the lack of trying.... it just didn't happen. But we have had several very difficult games and overall I am happy with the way things are going," the coach said when asked whether he is content with how things have shaped up.
India is already in Abu Dhabi where they will take on Thailand on January 6 at the Al Nahyan Stadium. Constantine said it will act an as an advantage.
"It's a big plus for us having been here a good two weeks before the first game against Thailand on January 6."
India played out a goalless draw against current Gulf Cup of Nations champions Oman after reaching here.
Constantine said the result was encouraging ahead of the games but at the same time showed what they need to work on.
"Well, after last night's result against Oman there are always going to be a few things that we can work and we will look to do that before the Thailand game," he concluded.