Sandesh Jhingan feels Indian football is no longer a pushover in Asia and a major role in making that happen has been played by the Indian Super League (ISL) which has given the sport the exposure it never had, both on and off the field.
A fit-again Jhingan is India's defensive lynchpin and has been part of the ISL, the country's top tier league, since 2014 when he was roped in by Kerala Blasters as a 20-year old.
Since then, the brawny centre-back had been like a rock at the heart of Blasters' defence, helping them reach the final twice (2014 and 2016). The Chandigarh-born Jhingan, a hugely popular figure for the Blasters' fans, made 76 appearances for the club before deciding to part ways this time.
Last August, Jhingan picked up an ACL injury that kept him on the sidelines for the whole of the 2019-20 season, in which Blasters finished seventh. Jhingan, who has 36 caps for India, also missed much of India's FIFA qualifiers over that period.
"I am back now. I am looking forward to football like anything. I am ready even if the camp starts tomorrow," Jhingan told IANS in an exclusive interview.
India's postponed 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying round game against Asian champions Qatar at home has been rescheduled to October 8. India then take on Bangladesh away on November 12 and host Afghanistan on November 17.
"We are a decent team in Asia and we need to be regular in the Asian Cup. We need to get to 2023 Asian Cup, qualify from the group and take it from there," said Jhingan on the upcoming matches, also talking about the time he was away from the game and how he still hasn't reached his potential.
"I still haven't realised my potential. I want to win trophies, I haven't won many and I need to win at the club level. For the nation, the World Cup is the ultimate dream and I will have a regret if I hang up my boots and not take India to a World Cup," he said.
India are already out of contention for a berth in the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The team is still in the reckoning for a spot in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
Talking about the ISL which has shaped Jhingan, he said: "If I speak only for myself, I have grown as a footballer and human being as well. I came around when I was just 20 years old. What ISL did was it brought so many big players and we could rub shoulders against them. Somewhere teammates, some opponents. When I was in (United) Sikkim and Mumbai FC before that, there was not so much stress on fitness. How to conduct yourself throughout the day, not only two hours in the gym and two hours on the ground, is what we learnt.
"We played against top strikers like (Florent) Malouda, now Coro and Miku...I am missing out names but when you play against them you can assess yourself. It gives you confidence too. The national team has improved so much, see the rankings. Also how far we have come. We are now respected as a team wherever we go.
"Also, 10 years ago if you went anywhere in India, apart from 2-3 big names not many were recognisable apart from those who followed football ardently. Now that has changed. People who are not into football also...you go to Gujarat or Rajasthan...they know a Anirudh Thapa," Jhingan explained.
"This exposure was very much needed. No matter how good the product is, if you don't show it to people...like we had good teams previously also but it was not shown in the right way..so it never got its due. We are lucky that ISL is doing what it is doing."
Jhingan is optimistic that if the clubs continue with their steady progress, an ISL team will play in the knockouts of the AFC Champions League every season five years from now.
"In the next five years, you will see every season an ISL team going to the finals or semifinals of the AFC Champions League."
There are talks about Jhingan venturing abroad for greener pastures, but the popular footballer remained coy when quizzed about the same.
"Every Indian wants to play abroad but for now I don't want to talk about it more."
India might have to play in front of empty stands when they take on Qatar. Jhingan said playing for the country is the biggest motivation one can need as not everyone gets to don the India blue.
"Playing for your country is the biggest motivation in itself. Like everyone gets married, everyone has kids. But not everyone gets to represent their country. As far as fitness is concerned, this batch is extremely fit and this batch has great mental strength."