The Indian senior national men’s football team will take on Mongolia on the opening day to restart its quest to regain the crown in the Intercontinental Cup, which gets underway here at the Kalinga Stadium on Friday.
The invitational tournament hosted by India, which saw its first edition in Mumbai in 2018, is an opportunity for the national side to test its preparedness ahead of the continental and world competitions.
India won the inaugural edition before it lost the crown in the next edition when DPR Korea became the champion in 2019.
The tournament resumes after a three-year hiatus owing to the pandemic and comes as an important event when the senior Indian team is beginning its preparations for the Asian Cup challenge in January .
Lebanon (FIFA ranking 99), Vanuatu (164) and Mongolia (183) are the three visiting sides in the four-team tournament that will be played in round-robin format before the two best placed teams play the final on June 18.
The Indian team, which won a tri-nation competition in Manipur in March, has reassembled here in a three-week camp to prepare for another round of competitive matches.
The national side will be playing two back-to-back tournaments with the SAFF Championship immediately following the Intercontinental Cup.
Indian head coach Igor Stimac announced a squad of 26 players after conducting a series of tests to assess their fitness and the final selection headed by captain Sunil Chhetri will be carrying the country’s aspirations in the upcoming tournaments.
“Although our opponents are not as tough as the teams we’ll face in the Asian Cup, they’re still good and competitive. Mongolia is a very aggressive side with a lot of young players in midfield and upfront,” Stimac said on the eve of the match.
“Each game will be a challenge for us. We’ve had enough time for preparation. Our players are here to prove that they deserve their place in the National Team,” he added.
India is expected to play nine matches in the two tournaments in June, which Stimac feels will give the Indian side some good exposure with teams like Lebanon and Kuwait (in SAFF Championship as an invitee) providing a higher level of competition to his boys.
“All the other three teams are ranked higher than us. But we will fight and try to have better games against them. We are very motivated to showcase our football here,” said Ichiro Otsuka, the Japanese coach in charge of the Mongolian national team.
The Japanese coach said that his side is preparing for the World Cup qualifiers later this year and the tournament will be a good learning experience for his boys.
Motivated by the tremendous support the national team received in Manipur, Stimac said his team will be expecting a lot of support from the football fans of Odisha, which has provided “fantastic” training facilities to his team.
“Playing at home will be a big advantage for us. I hope to see a large number of supporters cheering for us. We saw in Manipur that when we are surrounded by passionate fans who shower us with their love, the team produces good results,” the former Croatian World Cupper said.
-Amitabha Das Sharma
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