After India were drawn in Group A of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, legendary Indian footballer and former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia has expressed optimism that the national side could finish among the top two in the group and qualify to the round of 16.
India have been clubbed with hosts United Arab Emirates, Thailand and Bahrain in Group A of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, the official draw for which was held at the iconic Burj Khalifa in Dubai on Friday.
Bhutia, the sole Indian footballer till date to have played in over 100 international matches, said that he feels extremely lucky to have not been drawn against any Asian country.
“I am very happy with the group which we have drawn. I feel we have been extremely lucky as we didn’t draw any Asian Superpower – Iran, Japan, Australia and the Korea Republic — in our group. Every pot had six teams and from Pot A we avoided all the teams who have qualified for the 2018 World Cup,” he said.
When asked about his side’s chances in the tournament, Bhutia insisted that with a fair deal of hard work and a bit of luck, his side can finish among top two in the group.
“I feel that we can finish among the top two from our group and qualify to the Round of 16. I understand it’s not that easy but it’s also not impossible. With a fair deal of hard work and a bit of luck, we can achieve it,” he said.
Though the 41-year-old refused to take any sides lightly, he admitted that the group is easy in comparison to what they got in Doha 2011.
“In International Football, nothing is easy. But in comparison to the group in Doha 2011 where we were clubbed with the then World Cuppers Australia and the Korea Republic, this looks good, or should I say favourable. Not to forget that the other team in our group in 2011 was Bahrain, and they had played the World Cup play-offs from Asia too (for World Cup South Africa 2010),” he said.
Reflecting on the significance of qualifying to the AFC Asian Cup in Indian Football, Bhutia said tournament provides the players with an opportunity to play against best Asian nation besides also serving as a learning curve for them.
“It’s very important for Indian Football to qualify to the AFC Asian Cup on a regular basis. It is the biggest tournament for us – the Continental Championship. That’s the platform where we get to play against the best Asian players who play all over the world. Such tournaments come as a learning curve and is a huge publicity for Indian Football,” he emphasized.
The Continental Championship will be held across eight stadia in four cities in the UAE — Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Al Ain — January 5 to February 1, 2019.
This is India’s fourth qualification to the AFC Asian Cup, the last one being in Doha in 2011. India had finished runners-up to Israel in 1964.