India at AFC Asian Cup: A herculean task awaits Chhetri’s men

India (ranked 102) will play against Asian heavyweights Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria, making it near impossible for it to progress into the knockouts.

Published : Jan 09, 2024 11:12 IST - 3 MINS READ

FILE PHOTO: Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri (left) and coach Igor Stimac during a training session.
FILE PHOTO: Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri (left) and coach Igor Stimac during a training session. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K/THE HINDU

FILE PHOTO: Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri (left) and coach Igor Stimac during a training session. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K/THE HINDU

The chances of Croatia’s Igor Stimac matching the exploits of little-known Englishman Harry Wright, who coached India to its best finish in the AFC Asian Cup, look remote as India gears up for its first consecutive appearances in the Continental event.

Wright took over the Indian national team right ahead of the 1964 tournament, following the untimely death of India’s longest-serving national coach, Syed Abdul Rahim, a year earlier. Wright’s India — or perhaps more fittingly, Rahim’s India, with 10 players from his victorious 1962 Asian Games side — won two games and lost one to finish runner-up to host Israel in the quadrangular tournament, where all matches were 80-minute affairs.

The Golden Age of Indian football coincided with Rahim’s reign as the national coach from 1950 to 1963, with India winning two Asian Games golds (1951 and ’62) while finishing fourth at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

India’s tryst with the quadrennial Cup since then has been fraught with heartbreak, with the country managing qualification only three times: in 1984, 2011, and 2019. It, however, failed to move past the group phase on every occasion. Its only win in 10 matches came against Thailand (4-1) in the last edition.

Under Stimac, India has won 19 of its 46 games, but many of those have come against teams on the lower rungs of the ranking ladder. In Qatar, which generously stepped in after China pulled out of its hosting duties, India will find itself in a David-versus-Goliath battle.

Ranked 102, the national team is set to play against Asian football heavyweights Australia (25), Uzbekistan (68), and Syria (91) in the group stage, making it near impossible for Stimac’s men, at least on paper, to progress into the knockouts.

“We are rank outsiders in our group. Australia are one of the favourites. Uzbekistan are the dark horses with some excellent recent results,” a realistic Stimac said after the team made an early touchdown in Doha.

Despite 10 seasons of professional football, the Indian team continues to be plagued by the absence of a proven goal scorer, forcing 39-year-old Sunil Chhetri to still lead the line. Chhetri scored nine of India’s 21 goals in 16 matches in 2023. The six forwards in Stimac’s 26 have managed just eight goals among themselves in the ongoing Indian Super League (ISL). Chhetri (3 goals) has played the most, with 860 minutes for Bengaluru FC, while Kerala Blasters’ Ishan Pandita has just played 77 minutes. An overseas import has won the Golden Boot in every edition of the ISL, and no Indians feature in the top-10 list of scorers for the ongoing season.

Injuries to key personnel Anwar Ali (ankle) and Ashique Kuruniyan (ACL) have added to the coach’s challenges. Stimac’s plea for a longer training window to counter the lack of playing time among his squad clashed with the interests of the ISL clubs and was hence rejected.

As the odds pile up against his wards and the clubs win the perennial club-versus-country tussle, Stimac has rightly cautioned fans of Indian football to refrain from harbouring dreams of miracles.

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