Indian football is in the news – first because of administrative glitches and now because of achievements. The achievement is the team making it to the final round of the AFC Asian Cup for the second time in a row. It is praiseworthy and inspirational as well. When the governing body of the game is embroiled in controversies, the responsibility of running the federation is entrusted to a committee, then the mood of the players and the coach who trains them can be gauged. Players are their own, they can face the trouble. But the coach is a foreigner, whose tenure has been extended till September, whose reputation is at stake, he will be shocked.
It is true that the Indian team kept its winning record 100% in qualifying matches. There was no delay. But when the team was under pressure to make it to the final round, the arrival of the football on the court, the dissolution of the entire team, including the president of the All India Football Federation, Praful Patel, was a strange situation for Croatian coach Igor Stimac. The situation may be awkward for them but not for the Supreme Court. When officials make fun of the system and code, then something will have to be done to bring them on the line.
Thus, Stimac has to be commended for thinking far beyond the responsibilities given to him. They want to see Team India play in the final of every Asian Cup. Not only this, his goal is to build a strong team for the World Cup qualifying matches as well. They want to fix the system, want to see I-League as a strong link in Indian football. Less participation of foreign players in this. His thinking is not wrong. If Indian football is to be taken forward, then the skills of our players have to be improved. A goal is needed to win and a skilled shooter to score a goal. It has become a trend that clubs depend on foreign shooters to win I-League or ISL. Your forwards have since disappeared.
In 17 years, the success of India remains on the basis of Chhetri’s shooting art. Before them, the team depended on Baichung Bhutia and IM Vijayan. Chhetri is 37 years old. Even though he is still a master in the art of scoring goals, who is after him? That in itself is a big question. He was instrumental in his success in the AFC qualifying round as well. They also intend to play in the AFC final round in 2023. Scoring 84 international goals, he is tied with Hungarian great Ferenc Puskas. He is ahead of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Messi has only two goals more.
India will enter the final round of AFC for the fifth time. This tournament is to be played next year. Earlier the Indian team has played in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2019. Making it to the finals for the second time in a row shows the strong intentions of the players. India’s morale is high with a 2-0 win over Cambodia, a dramatic 2-1 win over Afghanistan and a 4-0 one-sided victory over Hong Kong.
The AFC Asian Cup was started in 1956. India played in it for the first time in 1964. The performance made in this is the best performance of India. Then the Indian team was the runner-up. It is a different matter that by withdrawing the names of the teams from the West Zone, India got the right to play directly in it. The teams were just four and under the umbrella of English coach Harry Wright, the team took the distinction of finishing runners-up, beating South Korea and Hong Kong. Hosts Israel won the cup by winning all three round robin league matches.
India had to wait twenty years to play in the final round for the second time. In 1984, the Indian team was in Group B, where it lost to hosts Singapore, United Arab Emirates and China, while it was tied with Iran. Being the winners of the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, India got their chance for the third time in 2011. The performance of India, which is participating after 27 years, was even worse this time. The team lost all its three matches to Australia (0-4), Bahrain (2-5) and Korea (1-4).
When the Indian team landed for the fourth time in 2019 under the coaching of Stephen Constantine, it ended the drought of 55 years not won. India beat Thailand with the help of two goals from Sunil Chhetri. The challenge collapsed after losing the next two matches. Captain Sunil Chhetri considers Stimac the best coach of all time. Tactically also they consider him better. Chhetri is enjoying the game of players like Liston Colaso, Suresh Wang, Akash and Roshan Singh. He thinks the team has a good future. The AFC Final Round will reveal how much water the team is in.