Mon. Jul 15th, 2024
A promising campaign that ran out of steam

When India began its round-2 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign, the mood was upbeat.

Afghanistan and Kuwait were lower ranked and the battle against Asian champions Qatar appeared to be the lone hurdle for the ‘Blue Tigers’.

With every passing match though, the task at hand only grew harder.

A goal drought and repeated stalemates meant that even victory in the final group-match against a formidable Qatar was not going to be inadequate. And when Qatar drove the final nail in the coffin on Tuesday night, India’s stuttering campaign came to a grinding halt for good, albeit in bizarre fashion.

A favourable draw

With the expansion of the FIFA World Cup in 2026 to include 48 teams, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has been allotted eight direct spots. All countries in Asia, including India, are vying for these coveted positions. The AFC qualifiers follow a multi-level qualification process involving all nations in Asia. A total of 45 countries from the AFC region are competing for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the 2027 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

The top nine teams in the AFC are placed in Pot 1, while nations ranked between 10 and 18 are in Pot 2. Teams ranked from 19 to 27 are in Pot 3, and the bottom 18 AFC nations start in Round 1. The nine winners from Round 1 advance to Pot 4 for the Round 2 draws.

Following an impressive victory in the SAFF Cup and subsequent wins in friendlies, India climbed to the 99th position in the FIFA world rankings and the 18th in the AFC rankings, placing them in Pot 2 for the Round 2 draws. India was drawn against AFC Asian Cup champions Qatar, along with Afghanistan and Kuwait.

A legend departs

As the second-best-ranked team in their group, India entered Round 2 of the AFC Asian Qualifiers with high hopes of advancing to Round 3, bringing them closer to their dream of playing in the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the 2027 AFC Asian Cup. India started strong with a win against Kuwait, thanks to Manvir Singh’s goal in the 75th minute. However, they faced a tough 0-3 loss to Qatar at the Kalinga Stadium.

India’s campaign in the AFC Asian Cup was disappointing, finishing last in the group stages without scoring a single goal and conceding six in three games. Their qualification hopes for Round 3 were further hindered by a 0-0 draw against Afghanistan in Damac and a subsequent shocking defeat to Afghanistan in Assam, where India conceded two goals in the last 20 minutes after leading in the first half. With two games remaining, India and Afghanistan were level on points, but India held second position due to goal difference.

With two games left against Kuwait and Qatar, Indian captain Sunil Chhetri announced his retirement following the match against Kuwait, taking everyone by surprise. India failed to give their ‘Captain, Leader, Legend’ a fitting farewell as the match ended in a 0-0 draw at VYBK, Kolkata. India remains in second place with five points and a goal difference of -3, while Afghanistan, with a goal difference of -10, are in third place.

In an exclusive conversation with The Bridge, Eric Benny, former Indian coach, praised Chhetri before his final match, “You have given us countless moments of joy, pride and excitement. Your leadership, both on and off the field, has shaped the future of the sport in the country. While we miss seeing you in action, we celebrate your remarkable career and the legacy you left behind.”

A goal-drought

India’s performance in the qualifiers drew significant attention, particularly for its struggle to score goals. Despite spirited efforts and tactical shifts, the team faced a notable challenge in finding the back of the net.

The Blue Tigers failed to score in the AFC Asian Cup and managed only two goals in the Round 2 Qualifiers, fewer than all other teams in their group. Head coach Igor Štimac’s approach and decisions have come under scrutiny. While his emphasis on solid defense provided a foundation, critics argue that there was a lack of a clear attacking game plan, making Indian attacks easier for opponents to defend.

Looking Ahead

Chhetri’s impact on Indian football has been immense, and finding a suitable replacement is crucial for the national team’s future. Igor Štimac now faces the challenge of addressing the goal-scoring drought.

Potential candidates to fill Chhetri’s shoes include Manvir Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte, and Vikram Partap Singh. Manvir Singh, a forward for Mohun Bagan SG, has scored six goals and provided ten assists in the ISL. Lallianzuala Chhangte, a standout for Mumbai City FC, has scored eleven goals for the Islanders. Vikram Partap Singh, a promising 22-year-old, has shown potential with eight goals and four assists. Rahim Ali of Chennaiyin FC also shows promise as a center forward.

Finding a replacement for Chhetri is just one of India’s problems. With Igor Stimac drawing criticism for now delivering the desired results, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) now has a decision to make on the coaching front. Thereafter, the task of rebuilding will commence and the road to redemption is not in any way going to be easy.

If you like this article, please share it with your near and dear ones


error: Content is protected !!