Fri, Oct 13, 2017 - Page 16 News List

‘Relieved’ India seal AFC Asian Cup return

AFP, BENGALURU, India

Captain Sunil Chhetri expressed joy and relief after India sealed their place at the 2019 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup, underlining soccer’s rising fortunes in the country.

India, better known for their successful cricket team, on Wednesday beat Macau 4-1 in Bengaluru 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 FIFA U-17 World Cup and follows the increasing success of the Indian Super League competition.

India, ranked 107th, have only played at 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 on Wednesday.

“This is the tournament we play for. We get to rub our shoulders against the best in Asia, which we don’t get [to do] many times,” he added.

“Earned our right to battle against Asia’s best... Happy, proud, relieved and more,” Chhetri said on Twitter.

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,” the AFC Web site quoted the Englishman as saying. “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 equalized for minnows Macau nine minutes later.

However, 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 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in March last year, winning 11 of their past 12 games.

Oman and Palestine on Wednesday also qualified for the Asian Cup, joining the hosts the United Arab Emirates, Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar, Thailand and Uzbekistan.

Nine more spots are still up for grabs in what is to be the first 24-team edition of the Asian Cup, which previously featured 16 nations.

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