The 2011 AFC Asian Cup is history, but for India the tournament marked the return to the continental stage after 27 long years. And there are important lessons for Indian football to take from it, work on them and try to qualify again for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia to show Asia that our football is developing and progressing.
Tournament matches isn't preparatory games
Many had worried that after the bad results in the run-up to the Asian Cup that India could get trashed by continental heavyweights such as Australia, Bahrain and South Korea. Surely we did get beaten by clear margins, but in none of the matches were we totally outplayed as in some of the preparatory matches. Plus the boys always gave their opponents a real fight and the sign of this are the three goals which we scored.
Continue to play international friendlies
Finally India played a number of international friendlies. From September to November 2010 we played more international friendly matches then in the last decade. Surely the results weren't the best, but what can you expect from a team which normally faces south Asian rivals, some better sides in the Nehru Cup every two years or local club sides wherever they train. We need to play five/six friendlies over the year 2011 to maintain that momentum and the level of exposure. And maybe even think about having a marquee match once a year against tougher opposition from Asia or even from Europe and South America.
The Asian Cup was international exposure for Team India at a new, much higher then their usual level. It showed that we lacked that international experience, e.g. in the game against Bahrain where we got the equaliser and went all out to get the second goal, but somewhat forgot to defend. This is all part of the learning process, which will help the team progress in the future.
Importance of AFC Challenge Cup
Only due to the fact that India won the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup we were able to qualify for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. If we had to qualify through the qualifiers we would have never made it to these continental championships. So the focus of the AIFF and Team India needs to be on the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, if we don't win it next year then we have another chance in 2014 to get to Australia.
Great fan support
India had great fan support in Doha! I would go on to say that we had the best fans in the Asian Cup with over 10,000 Indian fans coming to the three games on average. Especially delightful was to see our fans turn up in numbers for the last game against South Korea after the team was out and it was also raining heavily. This fan base which is there to support and watch Team India needs to be nurtured around the world.
International media exposure
Whatever Indian football does over the year it gets little to no international media coverage. At the Asian Cup we were one of the most covered national sides simply for the exotic factor and India developing so rapidly as an economic power. The global media genuinely wanted to know more about our football, which is a good sign even though the problems were touched on by Bob Houghton and the players. If it had been different then surely we would have been regularly playing Asian Cup.