The Indian men’s football team have the last chance to punch a ticket for the AFC Asian Cup next year. All they have to do is to get past the likes of Afghanistan, Cambodia and Hong Kong. A matter of formality for many, but for those following the national team’s fortunes over their last few outings, things are seldom so simple.
India finished third in their joint FIFA World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers and hence need to play in the continental qualifiers third round, with only the top team being guaranteed a position along with only five of the six group’s runner-ups going through.
The Blue Tigers kick-off their campaign on today against Cambodia, followed by matches against Afghanistan on June 11, and Hong Kong on June 14 with all of India’s matches kick-off at 8.30 pm.
India have faced Afghanistan twice in the previous round, drawing 1-1 on both occasions. As for Hong Kong, India last faced them back in 2010 and lost. In their last outing against Cambodia, India had beaten them in 2017.
India are on a remarkably poor run of form in their matches in the build-up to the ‘all-important’ qualifiers, losing against Bahrain, Belarus and Jordon since beating Nepal in the SAFF Championship final last year.
Igor Stimac’s men have been training in Bellary, Kolkata, and Doha for the last few months. In fact, India did not fare well in the practice matches at home as well, losing 1-2 defeat to Indian Super League side ATK Mohun Bagan, were held to a 1-1 draw by this season’s Santosh Trophy runners-up Bengal but beat an I-League All Stars side 2-1.
Off the field too things have not exactly been rosy. The Supreme Court’s intervention of removing Praful Patel from office and setting up a three-member Committee of Administrators (CoA), comprising former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi, Justice Anil Dave and former Indian football team skipper Bhaskar Ganguly, to take care of the football board’s daily matters. Prior to that The Indian government’s Sports ministry also slashed AIFF’s funding by almost 85 per cent, as grants under the Annual Calendar of Training and Competitions (ACTC) fell from Rs 30 crore for the financial year 2019-20 to Rs 10 crore in 2020-21 and further down to Rs 5 crore in 2021-22.
Confusion over tickets for the showpiece event has also caused the fans much harassment too with the initial offering of just 5000 tickets reportedly being pushed up to 50,000 after pleas from the Indian footballers including Sunil Chhetri.
Indian head coach Igor Stimac too eluded to the effect the fans can have in sheer numbers not only for his side but the opposition as well.
“We are expecting great support from the stands, we are expecting football fans to come in great numbers, to push the boys and to be the extra strength for their legs, for their hearts, for their mindset and help us to win these three games,” Stimac said at the pre-match press conference.
Senior defender Sandesh Jhingan too echoed his coach’s sentiment, saying, “This is what we dreamt of as a child — to play in front of packed stadiums. The more the fan comes it’s better. It gives us extra motivation. As always said that playing in a full packed stadium is something we should cherish and so very happy and thankful that everyone showing interest and coming.”
Even as Stimac is not willing to a lower-ranked Cambodia lightly in their opener, the Southeast Asian nation have Japanese superstar Keisuke Honda in their think-tank.
Cambodia coach Hirose Ryu at the pre-match press conference said that his team is “motivated to play away from home”.
“We think we had good preparations in Cambodia so hopefully we will have a good result,” Ryu said.
“It does not matter where we are playing, and we will be giving our best,” Ryu added.
Cambodia defender Soeuy Visal said they are “confident, and despite India being a higher-ranked opponent, we have immense trust in their abilities.”
Afghanistan will kick off the group D Asian Cup action against Hong Kong at 4.30 pm, followed by India’s encounter with Cambodia at 8.30 pm.
With so much happening in Indian football on and off the field, a good showing at the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers will give the fans a reason to rejoice.