When I look back to 2005 and my National Team debut at the age of 21 years I could barely dream of playing 100-odd matches for my country. When I introspect on our journey, I realise how much we have moved forward together.
Even as the entire world still struggles to get back to normalcy, staying shut is the new normal. In India everyone was waiting for sporting action to resume, but organising events under new medical parameters is a big challenge.
That’s where Indian Football has led from the front. The Hero I-League Qualifiers started on October 8, and that’s to be followed by the Hero ISL and then the Hero I-League. It’s the only competitive sport being played in India right now.
A lot has changed with Indian football. During my earlier days we were not acquainted with GPS, morning screenings, video analysis, and other modern methodologies. They are compulsory now. Attendances at stadiums have bettered. The numbers watching on television have also increased. There is so much chatter on social media platforms.
There is a visible spark—one that wants to turn into a fire.
Clubs have also embraced new technologies. Bengaluru FC’s qualification to AFC Cup final in 2016 was a testament of the hard work that was put in since its inception in 2013. Players too have become more serious about how to take care of themselves. They are far more cautious about what to eat and how to train during the off-season. Earlier we were pretty naive about all these aspects and that has had an overall impact on our performances. Introduction of scientific diet and strength and conditioning has helped Indian football head towards the right direction. At the national team set-up, Professor (strength & conditioning coach Luka Radman) is someone who brings with him huge experience and with his inputs the fitness level has gone up by more than a few notches.
Last year we qualified for the AFC Asian Cup after a gap of eight years and beat Thailand in our first match. Later, we held Qatar, one of the top five teams in Asia, to a stalemate in Doha.
I still remember when we started our FIFA World Cup qualification campaign in 2015 against Nepal, barely anyone put their money on us. But we played the most number of matches to qualify for the Asian Cup. The journey taught us to believe in ourselves, to work relentlessly.
Today we are a tough team to play against. We are not a pushover, but a force to reckon with in Asia. But, it’s just the beginning. We have to traverse a long path which is tougher and steeper.