India v Puerto Rico: Gurpreet named captain

India's coach Stephen Constantine chose the 24-year-old to inspire a youthful side with an average age of 23.

Stephen Constantine with the Indian team players at the Andheri Sports Complex.   -  AIFF Media

“People often say he went abroad to play. But I would say that he stayed out there and continued. And in a country like Norway, it’s not easy at all and this guy has been fighting it out for the last three years,” says the National coach, Stephen Constantine, of Gurpreet Singh.   -  H. Vibhu

Goalkeeper > Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been named the national team captain, as India (FIFA rank 152) faces an uphill task in an international friendly against Puerto Rico (114) on Saturday. India's coach Stephen Constantine chose the 24-year-old to inspire a youthful side with an average age of 23.

“Gurpreet Singh Sandhu will captain the team tomorrow against Puerto Rico,” Constantine announced at the fag end of the pre-match media conference to give a huge boost to the Punjab-based 'keeper, one of the youngest players to lead the national football team.

READ: >Gurpreet Singh Sandhu ready to seize his opportunity

The elevation of Gurpreet, the only Indian playing professional football in Europe with Stabaek FC in Norway, in place of regular leader and ace striker Sunil Chhetri, means senior custodian Subrata Paul, who recently won the Arjuna Award, would have to sit out the match.

The 32-year-old former captain is expected to play a part in the match though with the gaffer confirming that “there is no alternative to Chhetri” in the Indian squad.

The game against the CONCACAF opponent gives the national team a chance to climb up the FIFA rankings. The match would be India's fifth international game this year.

ALSO READ: >Stephen Constantine encourages India's players to play overseas

Puerto Rico missed its connecting flight and is set to arrive only later this evening, it was announced. However, Constantine brushed aside any advantage for India due to Puerto Rico's late arrival.

“They are a good side with many good players. Yeah, one may mention about their landing timing in Mumbai but you cannot take away their quality. Can you? They are a very organised side,” said Constantine.

“They love to keep the ball and play it around. They are technically very good. Once they are around the box they are very dangerous. Against USA they split open the rival defence with three touches,” said the national coach.

“They have similarities with Guam. Most of their players are based in the United States. In fact, they even have a team Puerto Rico FC which play in the US League. They have a number of players playing in Europe and they will be a very good side, make no mistake.

“They recently lost to USA 3-1. It’s good to test ourselves against these kind of teams. And hopefully we will be able to pass the test,” said the Englishman.

Building a team for the future

However, Constantine also praised the new-look Indian side in which 13 players are under 23.

“We are trying to build a pool of players who would represent India for the next 6-7 years. In fact, we already have built a sizeable group but there will be additions,” Constantine said.

“Today there is a healthy competition for each of the slots,” he added.

Constantine also praised Gurpreet’s attitude of “sticking in Norway.”

“People often say he went abroad to play. But I would say that he stayed out there and continued. And in a country like Norway, it’s not easy at all and this guy has been fighting it out for the last three years,” he noted.

“We are very motivated to play against a side ranked 114. If you want to go higher it’s important that you play against stronger sides. I would rather lose 4-0 to Iran than win 3-0 against Bhutan,” Constantine said about the game against Puerto Rico.

“There will be no change in our approach. We will play in the same manner that we played against Iran. We will play attacking football,” he said.

Former captain Chhetri, after a glance from Constantine, said he was fully fit for the game.

In defence, the team would depend on Sandesh Jhingan and Arnab Mondal on the flanks with Narayan Das and Rino Anto being the central defenders. The midfield is expected to be manned by Pronay Halder, the dependable Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Sumeet Passi and Jackichand Singh, with Chhetri playing as a withdrawn forward, behind striker Jeje Lalpekhlua.

Chhetri, the highest goal scorer for India at the international level, also praised the younger bunch of players. “There are a lot of young ones in the squad. Today’s younger bunch is more aware and professional as to what they need to do,” he said.

Mumbai gets international football after 61 years

The playing surface prepared for India’s first international in Mumbai after 61 years earned appreciation from Constantine and Chhetri. (Mumbai last hosted an international football match, India versus the USSR, in February 1955 at the Brabourne Stadium.). The grass surface at the Andheri Sports Complex, which earlier had hosted athletic meets for schools and sports festivals, apart from being a fitness arena for local residents, will be inaugurated on Saturday night and will be named Mumbai Football Arena.

Chhetri spoke about changes at the venue. “A few months back I came here; there is five-a-side pitch on the right side of the main pitch and I was playing there for fun. Someone told me this was going to be the stadium (for an international friendly). The way it has turned out is extraordinary. I want to thank everyone who has worked on the ground.”

He added: “I am happy the whole team is happy. I want to thank the MDFA, Aditya Thackeray and his team for working round the clock to make this pitch ready for the international match.”

(With inputs from PTI)

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