Home Art & Culture Indian Football Braces for its Year of Reckoning

Indian Football Braces for its Year of Reckoning

It has now been four years since Indian football had its big pay-day, with a Reliance-bankrolled league seeing the light of day. “Let’s Football”, they said, with the mission of kick-starting a footballing revolution in this country. Have they? There isn’t a definitive answer to that yet.

Maybe there will be, in seven months, when the senior Indian men’s team travels to the United Arab Emirates to play in the Asian Cup series, after a gap of eight years. As the skipper Sunil Chhetri said, no one is going to be foolish enough to expect India to even come close to winning the tournament. The Asian Cup will merely serve as the yardstick to measure the progress of Indian football over the last few years. In 2015, the Blue Tigers had plunged to dangerous depths, having been beaten by tiny Guam in a World Cup qualifier. That had led to India dropping to 173rd in the FIFA rankings.

Now, the team has risen to 97 in the ranking. But have they really tangibly improved that much? Or has the All India Football Federation (AIFF) been clever with arranging friendlies against teams that India could be beating on any given day?

Since India ended their World Cup qualifying campaign with one win in eight games, the national team has played friendlies against Cambodia, Nepal and Puerto Rico, apart from a friendly three-nation tournament involving Mauritius and St. Kitts and Nevis. This comes in addition to India playing against Myanmar, Kyrgyz Republic and Macau in the Asian Cup Qualifiers. It is safe to say the team played against teams they should be beating, they beat them, and the FIFA ranking took care of itself.

But even in the 13-match winning streak that was snapped by a 2-1 loss in the Kyrgyz Republic, not once could a fan watch the Indian team play and feel comfortable about the future.

Read More: PhD Soon to be Mandatory for Direct Recruitment of University Teachers

Yes, the fan could look at the captain Chhetri, and always feel hopeful, they could look at goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and feel confident that he’d make a few defining saves. But not once could they look at the entire squad and say it gave them the belief that a complete performance would come in. It took a moment of brilliance from Udanta Singh and Chhetri to give India a win in Myanmar, a moment of brilliance from Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua to give them the win against the Kyrgyz in Bengaluru.

Despite all the perceived shortcomings of the group of footballers that represented the nation, losing to Macau was unthinkable; almost as unthinkable as India losing a game of cricket to Germany or Italy.

But when the second games against Myanmar and the Kyrgyz came up, the Indians fell short. They drew 2-2 against Myanmar in Goa, before getting humbled in Bishkek.

India only lost 2-1 to the Kyrgyz, but it was a score line that flattered them immensely.

Coach Stephen Constantine has his methods– largely unpopular with the fans, but the Federation has chosen to stick with him because he has delivered the results that this crazy nation expected out of him. Today, there are Twitter pages dedicated to getting Constantine sacked (also to mock his follicle-challenged exterior).

But Constantine will stay, at least until January, which means that this group of players will largely remain unchanged when the Asian Cup comes around.

So, what will be a good result for India when they travel to the UAE? The preparation will begin in earnest on June 1, with the AIFF Intercontinental Cup, also featuring New Zealand, Chinese Taipei, and Kenya; evidently a slightly higher class of opposition than the one India has played in the recent years.

Also, remember the Reliance-bankrolled ISL? There were some players that distinctly caught one’s eye in the league last season, but are no closer to a national team call-up than they were at the beginning of it. The likes of Rahul Bheke, Adil Khan, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Brandon Fernandes took the ISL by storm, but haven’t been named in the Indian squad since then.

With the hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand being India’s opponents in the group stages of the Asian Cup, it is going to take a gigantic miracle for the Blue Tigers to qualify, but at least it isn’t the nightmare of 2011, when India were grouped with continental powerhouses Australia and Korea Republic. Bahrain beat India 5-2 in 2011, when India was last in the Asian Cup. The UAE finished 3rd in the previous Asian Cup, held in Australia in 2015, and Thailand have come a long way, managing to even hold Australia to a draw after making it through to the final round of World Cup qualifying.

Post the Intercontinental Cup India will play the SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Cup in Bangladesh, with similar regional foes being opponents again.

But, that is the least important tournament coming up for India. Apart from the Intercontinental Cup, the AIFF needs to make use of every other window to play FIFA-approved friendlies against opponents that will provide a stern test and not the same old matches against Nepal and Bhutan all over again.

While sometimes it is important to take care of a FIFA ranking, for favorable draws in big competitions, the rankings are not the only barometer of a team’s success; they are just a barometer of how clever the Federation has been to manipulate a rather faulty system in the first place.

For Stephen Constantine and his Blue Tigers, an opportunity to write a fabled chapter in Indian football history awaits but with every passing day, it looks more and more like an opportunity the Englishman is determined to blow, not least with the selection of his personnel.

One can only hope that despite all the flak that he has received, Constantine’s methods work for him and just provide him with the results that are being craved for, for just eight more months at the very least.