It was a glorious summer for the Indian men’s football team. Over the course of a month, the Sunil Chhetri-led side went unbeaten in nine matches and won two tournaments – the 2023 Intercontinental Cup and the 2023 SAFF Championship.
India’s display across both tournaments was something to be cheered for. However, like coach Igor Stimac said, there is a long way to go for India to become a powerhouse of Asian football. And the team will face their biggest test come January 2024, when they take part in the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.
The Asian Cup, a quadrennial tournament, is the continent’s premier men’s football competition for national teams. Considering India are not at the level to qualify for Fifa World Cups and Olympic Games, the Asian Cup is the most prestigious event available for the country.
The Indian team has qualified just five times in 18 editions of the competition. And in Qatar next year, India have been drawn in a tough group that features 2015 champions and World Cup regulars Australia, along with Uzbekistan and Syria.
It’s not all gloom though. The new-look Indian team is far more comfortable with the ball in possession, and have no shortage of flair.
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With the likes of Lallianzuala Chhangte , Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa and Ashique Kuruniyan bamboozling defenders and playing delightful through balls, all the evergreen, 38-year-old Chhetri has to do now is to put the ball into the net. And he did it with aplomb, netting seven of the 13 goals India scored over the past month.
In the run-up to the big-ticket event in Qatar, India will participate in the Kings Cup in Thailand in September followed by the Merdeka Tournament in Malaysia in October. But these events – at best – are still exhibition tournaments.
Stimac has urged the national association – All India Football Federation – to organise a four-week national team camp in December to get the team in best shape possible for the Asian Cup.
It is unlikely that Stimac’s wish will be fulfilled given that the Indian Super League will be underway during that time. The top-flight domestic league will likely be on break for a few weeks during the Asian Cup. To then ask for a four-week break in December would not go down nicely with the ISL clubs or the league organisers.
Clubs do not have any legal obligation to release players for national duty outside of Fifa stipulated windows. Additionally, they can also cite the 2022 Fifa World Cup where the top European leagues only released their players a week before the tournament began.
And yet, there’s a feeling that maybe the Indian Super League should do the right thing for the greater good of the national team. More time for the players together will mean more cohesion between the squad – something that has helped the team put up an exciting brand of football.
Over the past month, Stimac and his team have shown what they can do. But like the Croatian himself said, the work is not yet done.