The 2019 Asian Cup could be an historic milestone for Indian football. After years in the international wilderness, defender Sandesh Jhingan believes the time has finally come for the Blue Tigers.
False starts and somewhat marginal success have long condemned India's national football team to relative obscurity on the international stage.
Only in 1993 and again in 1996 the team managed to crack FIFA’s century mark when it comes to ranking, only to slip back down the polls as if their football boots lacked traction.
But after getting their 2019 Asian Cup campaign off to a flying start with an historic 4-1 win over Thailand on Sunday, will the team’s return to FIFA’s top 100 after more than 20 years be different this time?
Defender Sandesh Jhingan believes the time has come for the world to take notice of the "Blue Tigers."
DW: How important is the recent success of India returning to FIFA’s top 100  after two decades?
Jhingan: Of course this is a very proud feeling what we have achieved in the past few years with the national team getting into the top 100. For me I'm not a big fan of rankings; I'm a fan of playing big tournaments and big games. We had an unbeaten run of 13 games [between 2016 and 2017] which was really big for us. To do that on the national stage and then qualify for the Asian Cup was massive.
Speaking of the Asian Cup, how do you feel about the Blue Tigers will fare in the United Arab Emirates?
Well, the preparations went really well but I wish we'd had had more time to play friendly games. To get a draw against China [in Suzhou in October 2018] was a very good result. But then we played Jordan and lost 2-1 but most of us couldn't play the game. We had to travel in difficult circumstances. We were on the road for several hours and got stuck in the airport for around 24 hours.
But nevertheless the team looks very strong and we are motivated. The unity of the squad is second to none. It's unbelievable. And I believe this is our biggest strength.
Could you elaborate a bit?
When we go out there we often hear that we play like a band of brothers or warriors on the pitch. We do feel like we are all brothers and we all speak the language of football together and we die for each other on the field. I feel very lucky to be part of the squad. And I’m really hoping that will help us to have a good Asian Cup. I think the group we have now will make the whole nation proud. Of course there’s a lot of work to be done but we've been together as a squad with the same coach for almost four years now. I'm really looking forward to the tournament and making an impact.
Sandesh Jhingan (back row, right) and his Indian teammates are now up to No. 97 in the FIFA men's rankings
Let's side track for a moment, I've read many articles blaming cricket for poaching future Indian footballers away from the pitch. Do you agree?
I see a lot of blame and I think that's the wrong way of looking at it. Of course cricket will always be the big thing in India. They have achieved great things for us and I am very proud of my cricket team. They have won the World Cup and so on. But, with our population, we should be doing much better in football.
I think it's a matter of time, because football is an exciting sport. It's not that India doesn't love football. India loves football but it was never televized, it was never shown to people but this has changed with the start of the Indian Super League four years ago. Children can see us on TV now and must be thinking: "My God, if they can do it, I can do it as well! They are from India like me." That inspires the young kids, that's why the television cameras are so important. If you don't make the product look good, then no one's going to buy it.
Getting back to the national team, legendary striker Kalo Harin believes that, with the current infrastructure in place, the time has now come for more success. He even thinks India can qualify for a World Cup ...
We are on the right path. As of 2026, there will be more teams qualifying, so that's also a plus. Although the World Cup is the ultimate dream, to get there we need to be consistent at the Asian Cup first. We are now the dominant force in South Asian football and we'll soon start to get the results we want. Starting with winning the Asian Cup! With all due respect, we can't be the same team we were 10 years ago, just qualifying and then getting smashed. Now is the time to play like we are capable of playing.
Sandesh Jhingan, 25, nicknamed the "Indian Wall," is a professional footballer who plays as a defender for Kerala Blasters FC of the Indian Super League as well as for the Indian national football team. In 2014, Jhingan was named India's emerging player of the year. The defender has earned 29 caps to date for the Blue Tigers.
The interview was conducted by Kres Harrington.
Check out the video of the interview here: