'Tournaments like AFC Asian Cup are vital for Indian football'

Sunil Chhetri celebrates a goal against Thailand during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. Getty

Former India internationals Shabbir Ali and Steven Dias have welcomed India's bid to host the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, saying it would go a long way towards raising the profile of the Indian national team.

India, runners-up at the third Asian Cup in Israel in 1964, have since only qualified for three editions -- 1984, 2011 and 2019. They have failed to progress beyond the group stages at any of them, winning just one match in ten games, against Thailand last year. Dias, who was part of the 2011 team that came up against South Korea, Australia and Bahrain, felt hosting the Asian Cup would be a massive boost for the younger generation of players.

"There are many youngsters, and their parents, who have no idea about Indian football. During this lockdown, I have done a couple of webinars with academies, and there are parents who can't even conceive of a career in football for their children. They think football is something you can play as a kid, and later you can concentrate on studies and become doctors and engineers," Dias told ESPN. "We need football heroes, like a Sunil Chhetri. We had IM Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia for previous generations, but is there anyone after Chhetri? These tournaments are vital for Indian football."

Shabbir, who was India's striker at the 1984 Asian Cup in Singapore, felt getting a chance to play at home for the first time -- 2027 would mark the 19th edition of the quadrennial event -- would give Indian players their best chance at performing well. "Home conditions add an advantage, and that they must utilise. At the Asian Games [in 1982, India lost to Saudi Arabia in the quarterfinals, with the winner coming in the 89th minute], we lost by a last-minute goal. Home crowds are an added advantage, and I am sure if the tournament is in India, then the preparation will be much better than what it was in 2011, 2019 or 1984," said Shabbir. "It's a good thing for Indian players, fans and supporters to get an idea of the Asian level [if India win the bid]."

Dias, who was assistant coach of Indian Super League (ISL) side Jamshedpur FC during the 2019-20 season, called the Asian Cup the World Cup for Indians. "For any Indian player, you cannot imagine a bigger stage to perform. Playing against South Korea, Australia and Bahrain was something I had never done before in my career, and it was a huge step up from competing against a team like Sri Lanka," said Dias, who advocated India playing higher-ranked opposition on a more regular basis, even if only in friendlies and tournaments. "I got to play against Ji Sung Park and Tim Cahill and I never thought I would get to play alongside such players. There were differences, but the gulf wasn't as wide as something we cannot bridge. Maybe we felt a bit overawed by the occasion, because we had never played that level of teams before."

Dias also felt the national team would improve if younger Indian players take the plunge and go abroad to more competitive leagues, even if it meant going to second divisions in European nations, citing the example of goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. "I remember him from his first stint at the Indian team [in 2011]. He was the same Gurpreet, but the big difference was confidence. Before he went to Europe, I could come up against him and I would fancy my chances of beating him off a free kick," said Dias. "But once he played in Europe and returned, he's a completely different player. His confidence and positional ability just transformed."