India started their qualifying campaign for the 2018 football World Cup on June 11 with a 2-1 defeat at home to Oman. Despite the loss, the team put up a fight and showed promise. But six games and nearly six months on, India’s campaign has fizzled out. India find themselves at the bottom of their qualifying group, with a 1-0 win against Guam on November 12 the only bright spot. Finishing in the top two of the group is mathematically impossible and so India have no chance of boarding the plane to Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The team’s best bet now is finishing fourth, which could offer them the chance to enter the third qualification round for the 2019 Asian Cup. But even that will be a very difficult proposition. India would have to win their next two matches – against Iran away and against Turkmenistan at home. Nothing short of a miracle would be needed to beat Iran, currently the highest-ranked Asian team. Turkeminstan will not be easy to beat either, having defeated India in Ashgabat earlier in the campaign. India’s fourth place hopes would also rest on Guam losing their remaining game against Oman.

Blowing hot and cold

A post-mortem of India’s campaign would suggest that the shocking defeat at Guam in June typified India’s woes. Weeks before that game, India had started brightly against Oman and were perhaps a tad unlucky to lose. But against Guam, then rated almost 30 places lower, India put in a pathetic performance and crashed to an abject 2-1 defeat.

As the team readied to take on Iran in September, many expected India’s margin of defeat to be six or seven goals. But despite the gulf in quality, India defended with grit and obduracy and lost 3-0 – a defeat, but not a humiliation.

But India went back to their old selves the following month in games against Turkmenistan and Oman. The team showed no spark or grace and lost 2-1 and 3-0 in games in which they could have fared much better.

And just when most Indian fans had resigned to themselves to the possibility of six defeats in six games, India finally managed to unearth a winning performance against Guam, winning 1-0 despite playing more than 45 minutes with 10 men.

While India’s campaign did have sparks of brilliance, they remained just sparks. Without any level of consistency, results are likely to go against India in the future as well.

Scheduling problems

The second part of India’s qualifying campaign saw an age-old problem in international football reach Indian shores – the conflict between club and country. The second season of the Indian Super league began on October 3, just days before India’s important away games against Turkmenistan and Oman. The players were released by their ISL clubs just four days before the Turkmenistan match on October 8, leaving no time for a proper preparatory camp.

National team coach Stephen Constantine and current captain Sunil Chhetri have spoken out about this issue and it is a problem that certainly needs to be addressed. Most of the world’s biggest leagues, including the Premier League in England, shut down for international breaks and players are released to their national teams. The All India Football Federation will need to ensure that Indian players get sufficient time to prepare for such important matches.

Planning ahead

The biggest positive from an otherwise drab campaign was the performance of goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the first Indian footballer to play for a top division club in Europe. The 23-year-old was exceptional in all four of his  appearances for India. He pulled off some brilliant saves, keeping the margin of defeat respectable. His performance against Oman, where he single-handedly kept the opposition at bay for almost an hour, was a high point.

India have a while to take stock and look at where they have gone wrong. The most frustrating aspect has been that while individual talent has not been lacking, team spirit has been missing as evidenced by the many disjointed performances. If India seriously hope to reach the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the clean-up operation has to start now.