For a country hovering around the 130-140-mark in the Fifa Rankings in recent years (currently at 129th), the footballing ambitions are pretty finite. The World Cup, even in its 48-team expanded version may be too far and, thus, for the Indian national football team, the objective is fairly simple and two-pronged : winning the SAFF Championship to stamp its authority on its South Asian neighbours and to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup, a quadrennial contest that pits the best Asian teams against each other.

On Monday afternoon, the national team’s hopes of making it to the continental championship got a major boost. Twelve teams have already booked their spots for the 2019 edition, while 24 more teams, including the Blue Tigers, will be vying for the dozen berths still available.

The sides in contention were placed in four pots in descending order of their January 2017 rankings, with each of the six groups consisting of one randomly drawn outfit from each pot.

Chances of finishing at the top

India, courtesy of their recent rise in the Fifa rankings, were placed in Pot 2 and were clubbed with Kyrgyzstan (Pot 1), Myanmar (Pot 3) and Macau (Pot 4). To state that India have been lucky in the draw will be an understatement. Despite finishing at the bottom of their five-member group in the second round, the Blue Tigers now find themselves in a combination where they can even finish at the top.

Even though the top six teams were very close according to the recent rankings, India have been drawn with Kyrgyzstan, whom they have beaten in the recent past. India had defeated them convincingly during both 2007 and 2009 Nehru Cups, with Sunil Chhetri and Bhaichung Bhutia scoring on both occasions.

The last face-off, though, went the other way, with current East Bengal striker Ildar Amirov scoring in a 2-1 win in the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup. From the other two pots, India got the lowest-ranked teams.

With Macau being a footballing minnow, the matches against Myanmar are expected to be the deciders in their quest of making it further. The last time India faced them, a bandaged Chhetri had scored the solitary goal in a 1-0 win in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup on a rainy evening in Hyderabad.

Failure to qualify would be an upset

While teams like Yemen and Lebanon from the third pot would have made it difficult for India, it now looks achievable to such an extent that failing to make it can be considered an upset.

The qualification process arrives at a perfect time for the current batch of footballers. Stephen Constantine, who had taken charge of the team almost 24 months ago, has handed wholesale debuts to new faces, trying to replace the ageing stars, many of whom had formed the core of the team back in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.

The early results were nothing short of horrific, as the team lost seven of its eight matches in the group league. However, they have bounced back well, thrashing Laos 7-1 and winning the SAFF Championship. The feel-good factor was, however, created in September last year, when India outclassed Puerto Rico 4-1, an opponent who were 38 places ahead of them in the Fifa ladder.

While the youngsters were improving their performance gradually, this fixture marked their coming of age. To gauge a country’s overall improvement in the game is a difficult task, more so if one tries to take into account all the dimensions.

Since it’s very hard to quantify the progress in aspects such as grassroots development, transparent administration etc, the performance of the national team becomes the most commonly used benchmark in discussions.

Now with India facing a relatively easy route to the prestigious tournament, much is at stake for the All India Football Federation, who can’t afford another slip-up. It’s a decent opportunity for the team too, as it gives them a leeway from the long dark tunnel they have failed to get rid of.

Since 2002, India have rarely staged any upsets, having won only two games against teams who were ranked at least 25 places ahead – against Kuwait in 2004 and against Puerto Rico as mentioned above.

Now, as the situation stands, they will not have to beat any such team in order to make their way to a competition where they had finished second best in 1964. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Co. should grab this opportunity with both hands, carving their name in the Indian football history.

It’s worth remembering that India were ranked 36th in the continent when they were taking the field to play the first qualifying round match against March 20 and finally making it to the 24 best teams will be a decent achievement.

All in all, it looks like the Indian national football team is finally ready to take off and on Monday, it was confirmed that there will be minimal turbulence during the journey.

Atanu Mitra has been covering Indian football for more than four years. He tweets @Atanu00.