In the past month, more so than already was the case in recent years, Indian football has been embroiled in administrative crisis. The former president of the All India Football Federation and the executive committee had been relieved of their responsibilities by the Supreme Court, and the federation has been placed in the care of a three-member Committee of Administrators. It’s a development that could yet garner a suspension from the world body Fifa.

Amidst all this, the national men’s team will be competing in three crucial AFC Asian Cup qualification matches, hoping to at least provide some cheer to the followers of Indian football.

India has been clubbed in Group D of the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers, along with Cambodia, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. India, who has been granted hosting rights and will stage the qualifiers at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, are favourites to make it through to the finals – especially due to the home advantage and the Blue Tigers being the higher ranked team.

The AIFF has become a den of chaos, confusion and controversies

And for head coach Igor Stimac, these next three games will decide the direction of Indian football.

“Once we started our work together, we were clear about what we need to do in the future. We wanted to make sure India plays in the finals of the AFC Cup every time,” he said in a pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday.

“Only once we’re there we can get better and start to qualify for the World Cup. These are certain steps we need to go through. Right now, we’re in a good position, we’re favourites to win the group. I hope we will win and get enough time to prepare for the AFC Cup and do well there.”

Higher-ranked India

The format of the qualifiers is such that the winners of each group is granted direct entry to the finals of the 2023 Asian Cup. Five best runner-up teams also make it through from the eight groups, but India is highly expected to make it through as group winners given the difference in rankings.

It is yet unclear where the tournament will be held next year as China withdrew as hosts because of the coronavirus, with Japan a possible replacement as per an AFP report. The AFC recently set a deadline of June 30 for member associations to submit new bids, after which officials will make a decision on the host.

In May the AFC said that China had pulled out as hosts of the 24-team Asian Cup, due to take place in June-July next year, as the country pursues a zero-Covid policy – a stance that makes staging sports events a major challenge.

The Blue Tigers are ranked 106, followed by Hong Kong on 147, Afghanistan at 150 and Cambodia on 171.

There is a vast gulf – on paper – in terms of rankings, but Stimac was clear that on the field, there’s just a small difference between teams ranked 100 to 200.

And for the first game against Cambodia on Wednesday, he’s hoping his team will get a quick start.

“Our motivation is to press from the start, from the first minute, and put pressure on Cambodia. We are the favourites to win the group, we have to prove it with good counter-attacking football,” he said.

Favourites on field, struggling off it

On May 18, the Supreme Court decided to strip AIFF president Praful Patel and the executive committee of their duties. The Court stepped in and appointed a Committee of Administrators, comprising former Supreme Court Judge AR Dave, former Chief Election Commissioner SY Qureshi (both of whom are also in the CoA that has taken charge of Hockey India) and former national team captain Bhaskar Ganguly.

CoA involvement though could be seen as ‘interference’ by Fifa and may lead to a suspension for the Indian federation, which in turn could see the country lose hosting rights for the women’s U-17 World Cup scheduled for October. The world body had previously suspended the Kuwaiti and Indonesian federations for such interference.

Fifa and the AFC are sending a joint four-member delegation to investigate the matter on June 11 – the day of India’s second match against a strong Afghan team. The players too haven’t been aloof to the news.

“No matter what is happening on that front, I hope it is under control and the country does not get a ban,” national team captain Sunil Chhetri was reported as saying by Press Trust of India.

“Because, that will be catastrophic, not just for the whole country but for me, because I’m 37. I’m playing my last games. You never know when there’s a last game for you.”

What has been bothering the Indian team is the inconsistency in recent past.

“The sad part of our team is that in the last four years, we had a very crazy graph which is what bothers me. We had a couple of performances, where we thought wow. Then you come and play against Bangladesh, Afghanistan, the two first games in SAFF. That’s what bothers us as a team. The onus is on us. We have to fix first individually then as a team,” Chhetri was also quoted as saying.

Inconsistency can’t be afforded now, not qualifying with the stars aligning so well in terms of the venue and the opponents would be disastrous.

Fifa is yet to make its decision about if it sees the CoA as interference. As it stands though, an AFC Asian Cup Finals berth is on offer, and India will hope to make it to the elite competition for the second edition in a row, for the first time ever.

It’ll be the perfect silver lining. Something to look forward to in this phase of administrative chaos.

India’s matches

June 8, 20:30 hrs IST - India vs Cambodia

June 11, 20:30 hrs IST - India vs Afghanistan

June 14, 20-30 hrs IST - India vs Hong Kong

India squad

Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Laxmikanth Kattimani, Amrinder Singh

Defenders: Rahul Bheke (unlikely to be available for Cambodia), Akash Mishra, Harmanjot Singh Khabra, Roshan Singh, Anwar Ali, Sandesh Jhingan, Subhashish Bose, Pritam Kotal

Midfielders: Jeakson Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Glan Martins, Brandon Fernandes, Deepak Tangri, Udanta Singh, Yasir Mohammad, Sahal Abdul Samad, Suresh Wangjam, Ashique Kuruniyan, Liston Colaco

Forwards: Ishan Pandita, Sunil Chhetri, Manvir Singh

All matches will be Live on Star Sports Network and Disney+ Hotstar.

Details about the qualifiers:

There are 24 teams competing across six groups in six centralised venues – Kuwait (Group A), Mongolia (Group B), Uzbekistan (Group C), India (Group D), Malaysia (Group E) and Kyrgyz Republic (Group F). The 24 teams will compete over three Matchdays on June 8, 11 and 14 for the 11 remaining spots in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup tournament proper.

The six group winners and five best second-placed teams will join 2015 winners Australia,  defending champions Qatar, China, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Korea Republic, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE and Vietnam in the Finals. 

— Information via AFC