India are the first national team to arrive in the UAE for the Asian Cup.
The 'Blue Tigers', who landed at the Abu Dhabi International Airport on Thursday to a fervent reception from their supporters, will be competing in the continental showpiece for the fourth time in their history. They also played in the 1964, 1984 and 2011 tournaments.
Hockey may be India's national sport and cricket a national pastime there, but the Sunil Chhetri-led football team are expected to attract plenty of attention while in the Emirates thanks to the 3.3 million Indians living here.
India have been drawn in Group A alongside hosts UAE, Bahrain as well as Thailand, who will be their first opponents on January 6 at Al Nahyan Stadium in Dubai. All eyes will be on the Blue Tigers’ contest against the home side on January 10, in what promises to be an electric atmosphere at Zayed Sports City Stadium.
India will wrap up the group stage in Sharjah when they go head-to-head with Bahrain on January 14.
“The fact that the tournament is in the UAE is a big plus for us given how many Indians have made it their home,” said Chhetri, India’s most capped player and top goalscorer.
“We’d love to see as many of them as possible to come and fill the stands whenever we are playing. We’ve been enjoying some good support over the last few months at home and it’s a nice feeling to play in front of your fans. I’m sure the Indians in the UAE will help to recreate that for us.
“We had a very good qualifying campaign and the fans will help us carry that momentum to the competition. It’s important that we give this our best shot,” Chhetri added.
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Manager Stephen Constantine had named a 34-man preliminary squad for the biggest-ever Asian Cup which was trimmed to 28 before boarding the plane to the capital. A final list of 23 will be announced next week.
Constantine echoed Chhetri’s message, urging supporters to "turn out in full force in the UAE and support us as they always do".
“Personally, for me, it is a very proud moment," the Englishman said. "This is the first time India has qualified in the conventional way, so having topped the group to qualify was something special and the first time this has ever happened.
"The hard work started in 2015 and will continue. For me, it is a never-ending process and we must continue to improve and get better,” he added.