India’s prospects for the 2023 Asian Games football competition look bleak after the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Indian Super League (ISL) clubs failed to reach an agreement regarding the release of players by the clubs for the multidisciplinary continental meet.
Sunil Chhetri, India’s highest-ever goalscorer, Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu – the senior players of the squad – are set to miss the Hangzhou Games as their clubs are reluctant to forego their services for the first few games of the ISL, which is starting from September 21.
The Blue Tigers play host China, Myanmar and Bangladesh in the Asian Games on September 19, 21 and 24, respectively.
The clubs are not obligated to release players for the competition as it falls outside the mandated FIFA international window.
“No clubs are mandated to release players outside the FIFA window. Some of our players have spent nearly 90 days outside the FIFA windows, and now they (AIFF) are expecting a longer time, in the middle of the season,” an ISL club official told Sportstar on the condition of anonymity.
Sportstar can confirm that Ayush Chhetri and Sandesh Jhingan were asked to be released from FC Goa for the Asiad. But the release of Jhingan would have been a problem for the club as he is a crucial first-team player.
The club, however, refused to comment on the issue.
Both Kolkata clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan Super Giant, echoed the same sentiments (not keen to release players) when asked about their stance.
Liston Colaco was initially the name that was supposed to be released for the national side, but after Ashique Kurniyan’s ligament injury, which he picked up during the King’s Cup, the club is not willing to release anyone from its roster.
Mohun Bagan is playing the AFC Cup group league match on September 19 and has two back-to-back home matches in the ISL (September 23 and 27) which is prompting the club to hold back all its players during the time.
East Bengal wanted the ISL to start after the Asian Games, and since it did not happen, sources from the club said that it was not going to release key players and risk losing points. It has three matches within that period and is not keen to hazard the absence of a key player.
Amarjit Singh Kiyam, a promising youngster with Punjab FC, was the only player from the newly-promoted ISL side. But his club, too, explained that releasing him would be ‘extremely difficult.’
“The club is reluctant to let Amarjit go because the team management feels he will be one of the first-team regulars in the ISL campaign. And since clubs are not mandated to release players for the (Asian) games, it wants to keep him for the pre-season practice, too,” a source close to the club said.
The impasse has been continuing since August, with the senior team head coach Igor Stimac taking to social media, requesting the clubs to release players.
“I urge all clubs to continue supporting our national teams, especially in the upcoming months packed with some major tournaments - AFC U23 qualifiers, Asian Games, World Cup Qualifiers and AFC Asian Cup,” he wrote.
“We as a nation want to be able to put our best players on the pitch against the footballing giants of Asia and the World and show them that we are not to be taken lightly.”
Earlier this month, the federation had informed the clubs to release two first-team players each for the Asian Games. That, too, has not gone well with many clubs.
“The AIFF sent a mail to us around September 5 informing us that two first-team players were to be released by the ISL clubs for the Asian Games. There was no dialogue, just a mail to inform us,” said another source from an ISL club.
Special exemption for Asiad
The Indian football teams (both men and women) were initially stopped from participating in the Asian Games after failing to meet the Government’s selection criteria.
Neither of the sides (men ranked 18th, women ranked 11th) were ranked within the top eight in Asia – the selection criteria set by the Sports Ministry for the Asiad.
However, after a request from the AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey to the centre, the teams received the green light to travel to China as special exemptions.
India, now, is expected to send a relatively inexperienced squad, mostly drawn from the team that participated in the AFC U23 Asian Cup qualifiers, where it lost to the United Arab Emirates.
In fact, the coaching duties, too, might transfer to Clifford Miranda (the U23 men’s team coach) instead of Stimac.
Without key players from a side which won the Tri-Nations tournament, the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship this year, India’s chances of a noteworthy outing in China are bound to reduce significantly.
In June this year, the Indian team entered the top 100 of FIFA rankings after five years, giving hope to better things ahead for the sport in the country.
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