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Udanta eager for UAE 2019 bow

Bengaluru: Udanta Singh has revealed that it was a childhood dream to represent India as he looks forward to participating in his maiden AFC Asian Cup with the South Asian nation in the United Arab Emirates in January.

The 22-year-old JSW Bengaluru player is regarded by many as his country's brightest young star and has already gained a wealth of continental experience in helping his club side advance to the latter reaches of the AFC Cup in the past three seasons.

The focus will soon switch to the international scene, with India set to appear in their first AFC Asian Cup since 2011. Their return sees them paired in Group A with hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand, who they will open their tournament against on January 6.

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"This is a great opportunity for me to play against the big teams and, as a squad, we're ready to fight," said Udanta, who made his international debut against the Islamic Republic of Iran in March 2016.

"It's a childhood dream for me to play for my country because I've been a sports lover and a football lover since I was young and I've always wanted to represent India."

The Blue Tigers, who drew their last match 0-0 with China PR in October, will continue their preparations for the Continental competition when they face fellow qualifiers Jordan in Amman on Saturday.

A regular in the starting line-up, Udanta has come a long way since growing up in Manipur, a hotbed of football in India's remote northeast, where many of the country's best talent comes from.

It was here he was spotted as a youngster and taken to the renowned Tata Football Academy, where he honed his skills and developed into the player he is today.

"I started playing on the roadside in my hometown and was then selected for the local team, but I didn't play much there before I joined the TFA," explained Udanta.

"I didn't watch too much football as a [young] kid, but when I joined the TFA I started to watch India and follow [club teammate] Sunil Chhetri.

"It's a great feeling for me and my family that I am going to the Asian Cup as they have always supported me from a young age."

India's maiden AFC Asian Cup campaign came back in Israel in 1964, when four teams competed in a round-robin tournament and the South Asians finished runners-up. They returned 20 years later in Singapore but exited at the group stage, before suffering the same fate in 2011 in Qatar.

But after being defeated by Guam in mid-2015 in the early rounds of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 qualifiers, India's fortunes picked up and they went unbeaten from June 2016 to March 2018 to advance to the Continental showpiece for the fourth time.

Stephen Constantine's team also won the four-team Intercontinental Cup in June this year after defeating Kenya in the final. The tournament also saw Udanta score his first international goal in a 5-0 victory over Chinese Taipei, and the side will head into the AFC Asian Cup full of optimism.

"On the field, we always do our best to keep improving and to perform to the best of our abilities," he added. "I'll make sure to keep doing that throughout my career."

Photos: All India Football Federation, AFP

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