Praful Patel: 2026 World Cup should be India’s target

The AIFF president, appreciative of the good form of the Indian team in the last two years, believes a spot in the 2026 World Cup is a realistic possibility.

AIFF president Praful Patel, India coach Stephen Constantine and players at the national team jersey launch.   -  Abhishek Mukherjee

The Indian national football team must aim to secure a spot among the participating teams at the FIFA World Cup 2026 to be held in North America, All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel said on Wednesday.

Forty eight teams will play the the World Cup in 2026. Patel, appreciative of India's form in the last two years, pointed to the enlarged quota of teams from Asia (eight) for the marquee event, up from the current 4.5 (four teams with direct qualification and an inter-continental playoff spot).

“[The] 2026 [World Cup] should be our mission because there will be eight teams from Asia playing the World Cup. With the current form, and if we put our minds and heads together, and Sunil [Chhetri] and his team put their feet together, we would be definitely on our way to get there,” Patel said at the launch of a new jersey for the Indian team, ahead of the team’s trip to the UAE for the AFC Asian Cup 2019.

READ | Constantine announces 34-player list for AFC preparatory camp

In the last two years, India has moved up to 97 in the FIFA world rankings, its best position since 1996. The Blue Tigers went on a 13-match unbeaten streak that began in June 2106 and lasted throughout 2017. It was broken with a 2-1 defeat to then lower-ranked Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek in March 2018.

Triumphs in the tri-nation series in August 2017 and the Intercontinental Cup earlier this year, also helped its ranking. However, a young Indian side at the SAFF Championship, could only muster a runner-up finish.

Sunil Chhetri, who has been the face of this phase of success, was quick to credit many of his team-mates for their dogged contributions.

“[At the AFC Asian Cup], pressure to perform will also be on Sandesh [Jhingan], Jeje Lalpekhlua, Gurpreet [Singh Sandhu], Udanta [Singh], and others. When I go to the ground, I’m light and relieved as much of the work is done by these stars. And I think they are in great form,” Chhetri said.

India football team captain Sunil Chhetri (R) is not too worried about the AFC Asian Cup challenge.   -  Atul Yadav/PTI


Happy to qualify

Commenting on India’s upcoming challenge at the AFC Asian Cup, Chhetri said, “I was there for the draws. I knew ‘no matter who we get, it is going to be difficult. I was [happier] that we qualified [for the tourney] and I was ready to face any team that we got. With respect to all three teams (Thailand, UAE, and Bahrain), I think they are difficult sides, but we are not worried now. It’s more about how we are going to play. We are well prepared,” he said.

Internalising the playing conditions in the UAE would be key to performing well, coach Stephen Constantine admitted.

“There are two weeks to get acclimatised. Our preparation is [all right]. We could have had a few more [practice] games, in Abu Dhabi, but that is not for lack of trying.

“It’s a massive tournament for everyone. [However,] I take it as any other tournament. [We will take it] one game at a time.”

The Indian team kicks off its AFC Asian Cup campaign on January 6 against Thailand.

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