Possible FIFA ban, future of coach Stimac and over-reliance on Chhetri: As India qualify for Asian Cup, focus shifts on other pressing issues

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The Indian national football team qualified for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup as one of the eleven teams that could have gone through in the third round of the qualifiers. Their qualification was confirmed when the Philippines lost 0-4 to Palestine in a Group B encounter on Tuesday. The result means that this is the first time in AFC Asian Cup history that India has managed to qualify on back-to-back tournaments. It will only be the fifth time that the national team will be appearing in Asia’s biggest continental competition.

The back-to-back participation is a sign of consistency that is crucial required for Indian football to grow. Rather than currently unobtainable goals like qualification for the World Cup or the Olympics, consistently getting better at the Asian level is what is needed for the national team. And to get better in Asia requires qualifying for its premier competition on a regular basis.

The road to the Asian Cup though, was made needlessly hard by an Indian team that underperformed against teams ranked below them. The mention of two countries – Bangladesh and Afghanistan – particularly rankles in these qualification attempts.

In the World Cup qualifiers, which also doubled as the Asian Cup qualifiers, India came third in their group with seven points from eight matches (one win, four draws and three defeats). Three of those draws came against Afghanistan and Bangladesh – teams that are ranked much below India and should, on paper, be easier to beat. Those results masked some great games – in particular the 0-0 draw that India earned against reigning Asian champions Qatar. A 1-2 loss to Oman in their first match of the WCQ was also one which India should have won but lost because of some careless defending and poor fitness management towards the end of the game.

India coach Igor Stimac said the poor results against these teams were because India doesn’t employ overseas players while Afghanistan and Bangladesh play with overseas players who ply their trade in European leagues. It has been one of his consistent remarks as the national team coach and an issue that has been discussed to no avail in Indian football.

Despite this ‘lack of better players’ argument that comes up for the national team, India took a step forward in this AFC Asian Cup qualifying. Against a physically superior Afghanistan, India searched for more fouls in the final third and constantly stood up to the physical presence of the Afghan midfield. While goals are still a concern, especially both of India’s coming in the final five minutes of the game, the style of play and an attempt to be the better team on the pitch was a positive outlook.

Now that qualification has been secured, comes the question of whether the national team will be allowed to play in the Asian Cup. Currently being run by a Supreme Court of India-ordered Committee of Administrators (CoA), football administration in the country is, according to FIFA law, possibly being interfered with. A four-member committee of FIFA and AFC officials will be visiting the country and will make a decision on whether a country ban is necessary or not based on the visit and meetings.

The CoA, on its part, has said that the process of finalising the All-India Football Federation constitution on the lines of FIFA laws as well as the National Sports Code, should be finished by July 15. Then there is the process of electing the new executive delegation of the AIFF. All in all, according to CoA member Dr S Y Quraishi, the entire process of elections and results should be complete by September.

Should the country be allowed to play in the AFC Asian Cup, there is also the matter of where the Cup will be held. After China declined to host the AFC Asian Cup on the back of increasing Covid cases, the question of who will host the tournament is up in the air. While India have bid to hold the tournament in 2027, there has been no interest as of yet in jumping in as the hosts for the tournament next year.

The 2023 edition of the Cup may likely be moved to the later months of the year or even the beginning of 2024 if the host nation rights go west to a country like Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

And then, there are two other pressing issues. The AIFF will have to decide whether they will continue with Stimac, whose contract expires in September this year. Stimac has been criticised for the team’s defensive approach and some underwhelming performances. The qualification, however, will give the Croatian coach some breathing space.

The second, far bigger issue, is the over-reliance on Sunil Chhetri for goals. Chhetri will be 38 if the Asian Cup is pushed to January 2024. And although he has shown no signs of stopping – if anything, he’s been the most reliable in the team – how much workload he’ll be able to manage remains a question.

Once the euphoria over qualification settles, these points will have to be looked at. At the moment, though, India can breathe easy now that a gruelling qualification campaign has been a success.

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