India’s quest to qualify for the World Cup 2026 gets underway 30 months before the tournament as the Blue Tigers take on 136-ranked Kuwait in the 60,000-seater Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium in the capital of the Middle Eastern country.
It was just over four months ago when Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s outstretched left glove pushed out Kuwait captain Khaled Hajiah’s penalty to win the SAFF Championship final in Bengaluru. However, for Indian head coach, Igor Stimac all that’s in the past now. The Croat has urged his players to forget that and start with a clean slate.
“This match has nothing to do with the games we played two months ago because a lot of things have changed since then,” explained Stimac at the pre-match press conference on Wednesday.
He points out the different circumstances, and several changes in both squads. “The players had a long rest and started the season with their clubs. India and Kuwait are not the same sides, we both have had a few injured players. But that’s normal in football. Teams change from month to month,” he said.
The Blue Tigers have played 14 matches this year, but none were as important as the one they will play in Kuwait on Thursday. But the stakes were never higher, after all, it’s a World Cup qualifier.
More importantly, the matches also double up as qualifiers for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup as well. The top two in the group (reigning champions Qatar and Afghanistan are the other sides in Group A) will not only progress to the final round of World Cup qualification but also book their berth at the continental showpiece in Saudi Arabia.
“We had a good preparation. We trained for five days in Dubai, adjusting to everything that we are expecting. How you open the qualifiers, with zero, one or three points, can make a huge difference,” said a confident Stimac.
Indian midfielder Brandon Fernandes echoed his coach’s sentiments. “We expect a very difficult match. It’s important that we have a good start in these qualifiers, and for that, we need to stay committed and give everything on the pitch,” said the 29-year-old.
The Indian coach also pointed out the opponents’ quality despite being ranked 34 places lower than India. The two matches between the two sides in Bengaluru ended 1-1 in regulation time.
“Both teams are similar in strength. We are well aware that Kuwait deserve a much better rank than where they are right now. They will have the home advantage, but we’re going to try and eliminate that,” Stimac added.
Infamous for its heat, the Blue Tigers were welcomed with light rain upon their arrival in Kuwait City, and the rain is forecast to stay for the next couple of days.
“I think the players are happy here with a few drops of rain. It’s going to be a wonderful time playing football and enjoying the game,” concluded the 56-year-old tactician.
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