BANGALORE, India: Captain Sunil Chhetri expressed joy and relief after India sealed their place at the 2019 Asian Cup, underlining football’s rising fortunes in the country.
India, better known for their successful cricket team, beat Macau 4-1 in Bengaluru on Wednesday to guarantee their spot at the tournament in the United Arab Emirates following four straight wins in Group A.
The early qualification, with two games to go in the final round, comes as India host the Under-17 World Cup and follows the increasing success of the Indian Super League competition.
India, ranked 107th, have only played the Asian Cup three times, in 1964, 1984 and 2011, and striker Chhetri said he was still haunted by their failure to qualify for the last edition in 2015.
“I was there when we missed out in 2015 and that still hurts me,” said Chhetri, 33, who scored India’s second goal.
“This is the tournament we play for. We get to rub our shoulders against the best in Asia which we don’t get many times,” he added.
Chhetri also tweeted: “Earned our right to battle against Asia’s best… Happy, proud, relieved and more.”
Coach Stephen Constantine said the team would now target finishing first in their group by gaining at least a draw in their next game against Myanmar.
“If not the best, this Indian team is surely one of the best Indian teams in history and the credit goes to all,” said the Englishman, according to the Asian Football Confederation website.
“Starting from the players to the supporting staff, it’s the result of everyone’s dedication and hard work.”
Midfielder Rowllin Borges opened the scoring in the 28th minute but India were rocked when Nicholas Mario de Almeida Torrao equalised for minnows Macau nine minutes later.
But Chhetri scored in the 70th minute before Lam Ka-seng’s own goal and Jeje Lalpekhlua’s injury strike sealed the win.
India have remained unbeaten since losing back-to-back World Cup qualifiers in March 2016, winning 11 of their last 12 games.
Oman and Palestine also qualified for 2019 on Wednesday, joining the hosts UAE, Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar, Thailand and Uzbekistan.
Nine more spots are still up for grabs in what will be the first 24-team edition of the Asian Cup, which previously featured 16 countries.