| Indian players during a practice session, on Tuesday. A Telegraph picture
New Delhi: A lot will be at stake when defending champions India start their Nehru Cup campaign against Syria at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Wednesday.
For the past one-year, the results have not been quite encouraging for Indian football. Apart from the only notable triumph in the SAFF Cup at home, the poor show in the AFC Challenge Cup in Kathmandu and other friendly matches meant India drop to their worst Fifa ranking of 168.
Moreover, the retirement of players like Bhaichung Bhutia, Mahesh Gawli, Climax Lawrence and Rennedy Singh over the last year did not make matters easy for the team. Incidentally, all the players played a huge role in India’s winning cause in the last two editions of the Nehru Cup.
Now, with a relatively new squad and under a new coach Wim Koevermans, whose country gave birth to total football, things don’t look to be easy as India aim to regain the lost ground, looking to make a fresh start.
The five-nation tournament will give one an insight into the progress made by the national team under Koevermans. Having taken over only two months ago, the former Netherlands defender has been working hard, trying to give shape to his ideas of total football.
But then, things will depend on the players on how they adapt to Koevermans’ ideas.
The current side have too many new faces with limited international exposure.
Under such circumstances, a lot will depend on the performance of seniors like captain and striker Sunil Chetri, defenders Gouramangi Singh and Syed Rahim Nabi — who have all been part of the 2009 winning squad.
Chetri, for instance, has also returned after undergoing a pre-season training with Portuguese club — Sporting Lisbon — and the striker’s teammates will look upto him for inspiration.
Speaking about the formation of the squad, Chetri said: “As I look around the team, I don’t find the familiar faces of Bhaichung, Mahesh, Deepak, Climax, Rennedy or Steven Dias.
“It was an incredible side that reached Asian Cup final rounds after 24 years and won back to back Nehru Cups. But time and tide waits for none. We have to accept it. The new lot is a great bunch and we hope to achieve better results in the coming years.”
Koevermans echoed Chetri’s words. Asked whether India were aiming for a hat-trick of wins in the Nehru Cup, the Dutchman was prompt. “You always play a tournament to win and we are also doing the same. But you can’t win anything by looking back. Everything has to be achieved under the current situation.”
While goalkeeper Subrata Paul, defenders Gourmangi and Nabi and striker Chetri will once again be expected to lead the charge, the focus will also be on promising newcomers like Lenny Fernandes, Sanju Pradhan and Francis Fernandes, all of whom could figure in Koevermans’ starting XI.
The coach is a preacher of “total football” but one should not be surprised if he remains more cautious about his defensive tactics. After all, Syria, runners-up in the last two editions of the Nehru Cup, are far ahead of India in rankings and considered a traditional force in Asian football.
Like India, Syria, too, are going through a lean phase. Coached by Marwan Khoury, who took over only last month, most of the Syrian footballers have little international experience. Goalkeeper Mosab Balhous and defender Bakri Tarab, however, are players of long standing repute and have represented Syria for the past few years.
Match starts at 7 pm.