If ever the nations of the world would be represented on a map by its footballing achievements, India would be a tiny dot. On the global scheme of things, India have barely made their presence felt on the football pitch.
But if you are around Indian football circles for long enough, you’d feel differently. India may be lacking in footballing feats and resources, but it is full of optimism and hype.
For a country that languishes around the 100-rank mark in the men’s Fifa charts when the team is usually having the best of times, talking of participating in a Fifa World Cup in the fairly near future is indulging in fantasy.
But in Indian football, this kind of glorified optimism that paints a larger-than-life picture of the state of affairs is the way to go about things. Be it while playing up the impact of its well-marketed football league or suggesting how hosting big-ticket events is the route to being a top footballing nation. Even as the Indian men’s football team is on a run of three wins in 17 matches, the talks of India being a sleeping giant of global football refuse to go away.
However, the recent performance of the team in the 1-1 draw against ten-man Bangladesh palpably contrasts this belief.
It’s not the first time that the team has failed to win a match or has severely under-performed, but this particular performance against Bangladesh was still distinctly poorer than some of the recent string of below-par performances.
During the game, India were at times outplayed by a team ranked 82 places below them in the Fifa charts and that played 36 minutes of the match with a man less. While India’s Fifa rank is part of the glorified bubble around it, the level of the performance against Bangladesh was much lower than what Indian football, even sans all the hype, should be able to produce.
This result and more so the performance has put a big question mark on any talks of progress the country is making on the football pitch. If anything, under the current regime led by Croatian coach Igor Stimac, Indian football has regressed.
The short-term issue plaguing Indian football
The reasons for the very slow pace of progress of Indian football have been highlighted time and again. A lack of investment and infrastructure at the grassroots level, a domestic calendar that just doesn’t have enough games for the national team to be competitive at the highest level even in Asia, and over-reliance on foreign players in the domestic leagues; an issue that is set to be addressed as the Indian Super League is set to adapt the 3+1 foreign player rule.
But India’s performances under the current regime, that hit its lowest point against Bangladesh, ask a question. Are we getting the best out of the players we have at our disposal even with all the long-term problems that are holding Indian football back?
India have failed to beat Afghanistan and Bangladesh twice under Stimac and have drawn against Nepal once. That’s five matches against lower-ranked nations that India haven’t won. All these teams are improving but are still not at the level of India even in its current state of affairs. So failing to beat these teams even once suggests that above all the existing long-term problems, there is a pressing short-term issue plaguing Indian football: lack of proper coaching and tactical direction.
Stimac was one of India’s most high-profile coaching appointments in recent years, but 17 games later there is enough evidence to suggest that this move has not quite worked out. The game against Bangladesh being the biggest case in point.
As Bangladesh started the game sitting deep, inviting India onto them, the Blue Tigers simply couldn’t penetrate the Bangladesh low block. Their build-up through defence was slow and their passing completely wayward.
These exact set of players are able to complete these exact set of passes with relative ease in the ISL. Stimac has pointed to the fact that playing in ISL is much easier compared to international football as there is less time on the ball. This statement is usually true but against Bangladesh that wasn’t quite the case. Oscar Bruzon’s men didn’t show any interest in pressing the ball until it came in their final third. There was time and space for the Indians to build their attacks and yet they couldn’t find their teammate time and again.
Passing ability may not be the Indian team’s strength but such poor execution probably points to a lack of clarity in their heads that stems from a lack of clarity about their roles or just an overall lack of tactical instruction.
What drives home this point is the fact that even when India actually succeeded in getting the ball to its forwards there was no apparent plan to unlock Bangladesh. The Indian forwards either shot from a distance or played the ball wide for a cross. This has been a common theme across all matches under Stimac except a few early games where India showed some common patterns in their play. That though was short-lived.
Against Bangladesh, Stimac had instructed his full-backs to stay high and wide to provide the width but there seemed to be no apparent plan to stop Bangladesh from exploiting the vacant spaces behind the Indian full-backs. Even with ten men, Bangladesh caused India loads of problems in those areas.
India never had full control of the game despite dominating possession as Bangladesh always carried a threat on transitions. That should have changed when India had an extra man on the field for almost 36 minutes. But the lack of organisation in the team’s play, especially while defending the counter-attacks was badly exposed in the second half.
All India needed to do was to organise its midfield and defence, keep the ball for a sustained period and tire the ten man out before finding an opening. Nothing of that sort happened as India kept committing the same mistakes on defensive transitions and didn’t have a better attacking plan than getting the ball to Sunil Chhetri or Manvir Singh and hoping they would score.
India weren’t particularly blowing teams away under the previous coach Stephen Constantine, but they at least seemed to have a clear plan that worked fairly well in the second part of his tenure. India didn’t have too many troubles putting away the weaker teams and that was the key in their qualification for the AFC Asian Cup in 2019.
As the qualification for another Asian Cup is on the horizon, there is no evidence to suggest that India will be able to put away the lower-ranked and successfully qualify for the 2023 edition.
The results certainly tell a story but the listless and clueless nature of the performances show that India have regressed under Stimac. For Indian football authorities that lure their fans by showing them the World Cup dream, sustaining it would be very challenging if India fail to make the cut to the Asian Cup in 2023.
As it stands, that is a very realistic possibility, and until something isn’t done about the coaching aspect, a disaster is in the offing. The alarm bells are ringing after that performance against Bangladesh. It’s time for the AIFF to act, if not in the long term but at the very least in the short term.