If back-to-back triumphs at the last two Nehru Cups are anything to go by, reigning champions India are likely contenders to complete a hat-trick of titles in this year's 15th edition, which runs from 22 August through 2 September.
India are filling the role of hosts for this year’s South Asian competition. Before they won the tournament under Bobby Houghton in 2007, India had played merely a cameo role in the tournament. Inspired by the ground-breaking achievement, the Blue Tigers went on to complete a successful title-defence two years later.
With this year marking the tournament's 30-year anniversary, the home side, under newly-appointed Dutchman Wim Koevermans, are keen on marking the occasion witha third title. Facing neighbouring Nepal, Maldives, Syria and Cameroon in around-robin first phase, the Indians will aim to finish in the top two, booking a place in the final. If they are triumphant, they will be the first side to win the Nehru Cup three times.
"Being defending champions, we’re looking to continue to do well," captain Sunil Chhetri told local media. "We have our own technique and I am sure that it will work wonders in the matches to come."
A new look
Only taking over the reigns in July, Koevermans has a young squad at his disposal, with one-third of the players under the age of 23. They will also be without the services of scoring great Baichung Bhutia, Climax Lawrence and Mahesh Gawli, whoall featured heavily as India sealed the last title.
Having scored 43 in from 107 international games for India, Bhutia announced his retirement from the national team following the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. Gawli followed suit the same year, before Lawrence called time on his illustrious international career earlier this year.
Filling the holes left by these retired legends is a new generation spearheaded by Chhetri, who has proved to be the true heir to his former attacking partner Bhutia. He netted four times in his side's first Nehru Cup success in 2007,before putting on another four-goal display as India reigned supreme in the2008 AFC Challenge Cup to seal their qualification for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 1984. Chhetri is the current squad's only European-based star after moving to the reserve team of Sporting Clube de Portugal last month.
Shouldering the responsibility of leading the team, the 28-year-old striker is hoping the new-look side can develop quickly. "It will be a bit odd not having those guys around and it will not be easy to replace them," he said. "The youngsters need to take this opportunity, although it would be wrong to expect them to deliver results overnight. It is a new team and we need to give them time."
While India have their sights firmly fixed on another title, they know there are hurdles ahead. They open against none other than Syria, who India twice beat in the tournament’s final, a fact which leaves goalkeeper Subrata Pal confident heading into the re-match.
"The Nehru Cup has been a lucky tournament for us," said the 25-year-old keeper,hero of the 2009 final which India won via a penalty shootout. "We have defeated Syria in the past so we are confident of doing well this time around."
While victories over Maldives and Nepal should be well within their grasp, African giants Cameroon await them in the next game with the result possibly vital to decide which team can progress to the final. 109 places above India in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the West Africans are strongly fancied to win the tournament. Despite this, Chhetri, insists that his side can spring a surprise. "All the teams in the Nehru Cup are good. Syria are the most improved, and Cameroon is ranked 59th in the world, but we have a good side too," he said.
The experienced Chhetri is stressing the importance of team unity in the India squad. "Wim [Coach Koevermans} has a vision in place for Indian football. We must understand what he wants from us, and we must play to his formula. The mantra for success for any team is to execute exactly what the coach says," he concluded.