The India national football team has made up for the disappointment of failing to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar by securing a place at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. However, it is the failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup that will disappoint football fans in India. The nation finished in third place in the World Cup qualifying group, but after recording just one win in six games, the nation was nine points behind second-placed Oman.
Nevertheless, it was the highest position the country has achieved since the 2002 World Cup qualification campaign. Many people question whether this is sufficient for a country with a growing football league and a huge population. India is currently ranked 104th on the FIFA table of international football teams.
FOOTBALL VS CRICKET
One issue hampering the attempts at football success is that it has to compete with cricket, the nation’s favourite sport. Cricket legends such as Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, and Rahul Dravid are known all over the world, so it is no surprise that most inspiring sports people in India grow up wanting to play cricket rather than football. In the Men’s Test Team Rankings, the Indian national cricket team is currently in second place behind Australia and the nation won the Cricket World Cup in 2019. The eyes of the world will be on India next year as the nation hosts the Cricket World Cup.
Nevertheless, India has made progress in world football in recent years and it is important to remember that the Indian Super League was formed just eight years ago. One benefit of the league with its big-spending franchises has been the signing of ageing but influential world stars, which have included World Cup winner Alessandro Del Piero, Australian Tim Cahill, and ex-Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov. The opportunity to play and compete with such players has helped raise the level of Indian football.
Furthermore, the All India Football Federation signalled its intent in 2019 by appointing Igor Štimac, the former trainer of the Croatian national side, as head coach. The popularity of football in India was demonstrated by the crowd of 53,286, which attended the World Cup qualifier against Bangladesh at the Salt Lake Football Stadium in Kolkata in 2019.
In addition, India recently celebrated success in the third round of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualification, as the nation topped its group with a record of three wins from three games, finishing ahead of Hong Kong, Afghanistan, and Cambodia.
Although India has not qualified for this year’s World Cup, there will still be global interest and involvement in the competition, as people from (but not limited to) AFC nations like Australia, will wager on FIFA World Cup betting sites such as Bet365. The Asian Football Confederation will be represented by the hosts Qatar, who topped India’s World Cup qualifying group and are priced at 14/1 to win Group A, which includes the Netherlands, Ecuador, and Senegal. Other AFC nations are Australia and Japan, who are both priced at 250/1 to become World Champions.
India certainly has the opportunity to improve further with Štimac at the helm. He has emphasised the importance of working together with stakeholders in the domestic competitions to arrange sufficient preparation time for the national team along with at least four friendly matches. He views this as being a key factor to achieve positive results.
Star Striker Fail
The extent of the task facing Štimac is illustrated by the case of Sunil Chhetri, who has scored 84 goals in 129 games for India and is the nation’s most capped player and all-time top scorer. Chhetri is 37 years old and will eventually have to be replaced, despite continuing to turn back the clock with his performances in the recent Asian Cup qualifying campaign. In June 2022, he scored four of India’s eight goals in the three games as part of the third round of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualification.
In contrast, Manvir Singh, who plays for ATK Mohun Bagan, has scored just six goals for the national team in 33 matches, while his teammate Liston Colaco is yet to make the scoresheet in 11 appearances for India. Ashique Kuruniyan, another contender to replace Chhetri, has scored once in 25 international appearances. India must find a goal-getter to replace Chhetri, as the nation scored just six goals in eight games in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers – with Chhetri scoring three times.
While India has shown improvement of late, the lack of goals will always hamper the nation’s chances against bigger nations. This will be exacerbated by the fact that there is not yet a replacement for Sunil Chhetri and the nation is reliant on his goals. Nevertheless, the three victories in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualification will give further encouragement that India is progressing. If the nation performs well at the AFC Asian Cup next year and Štimac can guide India to a world ranking below 100, it would certainly be seen as a success and possibly a springboard to greater achievements.