Two weeks after its triumphant SAFF Championship campaign, Indian football received a rude jolt as a ‘selection criteria’ set by the Ministry of Youth and Sports Affairs ruled out its participation at the Asian Games for the second time in a row.
The Asian Games 2023 will take place from September 23 to October 8, and the football competition will feature under-23 teams from participating nations, with provision for three over-age players.
India won the gold medal at the Asian Games twice (1951 and 1962) and the bronze medal once in 1970. But its performance in the tournament has declined since.
In its last appearance at the Asian Games in 2014, it finished at the bottom of the group stage and 26th overall among the 29 participating nations.
In 2023, though, Igor Stimac’s side, the senior Indian National Team, has had a positive start.
It has won three titles so far—the Tri-Nations Series, the Intercontinental Cup, and the SAFF Championship—and has returned to the top 100 (99) of the FIFA Rankings after five years. However, its ranking in Asia has not been anywhere close to 8—the cut-off set by the Ministry for Team Sports for the Asian Games.
So, what are the selection criteria set by the centre?
The circular from the centre reads, “For team events, only those teams that have achieved a ranking up to 8th among participating countries of the concerned tournaments in the last year should be considered for participation in the respective tournaments.”
India ranks 18th in Asia in the latest FIFA rankings.
The way around
The Ministry’s circular has a caveat.
“In events where rankings are not maintained or where sportspersons have not been able to improve their ranking on account of reasons like lack of exposure in international tournaments, appropriate criteria may be adopted by the National Sports Federation (NSF) in consultation with this Ministry,” it states.
A few National Sports Federations (NSFs) have used this caveat to select squads—through national trials or at the discretion of the apex sports body when team ranking is not available.
One of the most recent yet prominent examples is that of the Indian Lawn Bowls team selected for the Commonwealth Games. The Bowling Federation of India used its discretion, keeping in mind a set of policies, to nominate the team for Birmingham 2022.
The women’s fours team won India’s first gold medal in the discipline, and the men’s fours team won the silver medal.
Disciplines such as bridge, rowing, golf, skateboarding, equestrian, breakdancing, eSports, and shooting have named their squads after trials.
On the other hand, AITA (All India Tennis Association) and the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) have picked the teams on their own.
For individual sports, the criterium has been relaxed by the IOA, making the top eight (in Asia) the threshold (instead of the top 6).
Swimming comes as a blaring exception here.
India has won two bronze medals in the last 36 years at the Asian Games and returned empty-handed from the last edition of the Games.
However, the Swimming Federation of India (SFI), considering the National Championships as selection trials, announced a 36-member Indian squad for the aquatic disciplines for the Asian Games.
Beach Volleyball is another interesting case.
The Volleyball Federation of India (VFI) has been embroiled in infighting for some time now, and its recognition as an NSF has also not been renewed since December 2019. As a result, the Sports Ministry directed the IOA to form an ad hoc committee to look after the affairs of the federations.
“The ministry has reconsidered the matter in the context of the longstanding impasse and the existing state of affairs that continues to affect the sport of volleyball in the country due to persistent factionalism in the VFI,” the letter stated.
The ad hoc committee comprised four members, two of whom were from the IOA: Rohit Rajpal, Executive Council Member as Chairman, and Alaknanda Ashok (Joint Secretary). And under this committee, the squads for the Asian Games were selected.
The last time India participated in beach volleyball at the Asian Games, it finished 17th out of 25 spots. But after open trials in the discipline this month, the beach volleyball side was finalised in Chennai on July 15.
However, sources told Sportstar that the volleyball teams are unlikely to get the nod for Hangzhou, as the men’s side and women’s side are ranked 15th and 14th in Asia, respectively.
The scope for exemptions
The Ministry also has provisions for special exemptions.
“In the opinion of the experts of specific sports disciplines and that of the Sports Authority of India, participation of individuals and teams in relaxation of the above criteria is recommended with justifiable reasons, and the same will be considered in the Ministry for appropriate decision,” the Ministry’s circular, dated July 10, 2023, states.
“There is no categorical ‘NO’ from the Ministry yet. But we have requested an exemption as soon as possible”Shaji Prabhakaran, the Secretary General of AIFF about the Indian Football team
One of the beneficiaries of this provision was the men’s handball team at the last Asian Games. This time, too, with the team ranked 15th, it will look to seek a similar benefit.
“We have a go-ahead from the Asian Handball Federation. We have the squad ready. The last time the team went with a special exemption from IOA, and the federation is hoping for the same this time,” Tejraj Singh, the treasurer of the Handball Association of India, told Sportstar.
“If that does not happen, the Federation will look to sponsor the campaign at the Asian Games.”
“The Women’s Team (Ranked 6th in Asia) is definitely going. The Junior Handball Championships in Noida will conclude on July 24, after which the camp will begin in Ayodhya, and then the team will fly to Japan for further training,” he added.
India’s expenses for the entire campaign at the Asian Games, which include kits, travel, and stay, are borne by the Government of India. This includes all squads approved by the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs and the Sports Authority of India.
In case a sport misses out, the Federation can sponsor the team’s campaign with its funds.
There have been several instances in the past where a federation has paid from its pocket to support an athlete abroad, like the Kudo International Federation paying for the 18-member contingent at the Kudo World Cup 2023.
But travelling under the aegis of the Centre remains a priority over self-funding.
“There is no categorical ‘NO’ from the Ministry yet. But we have requested an exemption as soon as possible,” Shaji Prabhakaran, the Secretary General of the All India Football Federation, said.
Monal Chokshi, the Secretary General of the Swimming Federation of India, also told Sportstar that he is trying his best to get permission for the water polo team to be allowed at the Asiad.
“We had been working with the Serbian Water Polo Federation since January 2022 to train our team for the Asian Games, which were then postponed,” he said.
“We had disbanded the camp because of the postponement sometime in June, but we got the invitation for the Asian Water World Championships in Thailand, so we put our team back, and we stood 9th there. So, our ranking comes from that championship.”
“We need to up our game a lot before we start sending teams to competitions in Europe. The only option for us is to play in competitions in Asia, which are not too many.
“So, we have been telling the government that, look, unless and until we make these kinds of progressive changes, we’re never going to develop the discipline. That is the premise on which we are expecting the government to make some concessions,” he added.
Chokshi is awaiting a response from the government.
So is Kulvinder Singh Gill, a former international basketball player and the current General Secretary of the Basketball Federation of India.
“I’m certain that the Indian women’s team will go. We are still discussing the decision on the men’s team with the Centre,” he told Sportstar.
In such circumstances, the women’s softball team provides hope.
With a rank of 10th in Asia and well out of the threshold for qualification, it (along with Singapore) got its approval from Softball Asia as wild cards to participate in the Asian Games during its executive committee meeting on February 23.
“Performing at the Asian Games is our first step and comes with a huge responsibility as we aspire to be a strong team ahead of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics,” President of the Softball Association of India Neetal Narang told PTI. The team’s fate, however, remains subject to approval from the IOA.
AIFF is hoping for a similar revival under president Kalyan Chaubey, who is also the Joint Secretary of the IOA.
Though several sports have squads ready for the Asian Games, rankings and regulations continue to be impediments to the Hangzhou dream. With the Indian contingent aiming to surpass the medal tally of 2018 (70), it will be interesting to see if the IOA approves more teams for the Games.
- India vs Kuwait highlights, IND 1-0 KWT, FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifier: Manvir’s solitary goal gets three points for Blue Tigers
- India beats Kuwait 0-1 after Manvir Singh scores opening goal in the FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifier
- Liechtenstein vs Portugal LIVE Score, LIE V POR, Euro 2024 qualifiers: Cristiano Ronaldo starts, lineups and updates
- FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers points table LIVE: AFC standings after India vs Kuwait, Pakistan bottom of Group G
- Djokovic beats Hurkacz at ATP Finals but semis hopes hinge on Sinner