Merdeka Cup 2023: India sets sight on victory & final spot
India played Merdeka Cup 17 times in the past
India have a date with history in this October FIFA window.
When the Blue Tigers take the pitch at the 90,000-strong Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur to play the Merdeka Cup semi-final against hosts Malaysia on Friday, memories will come rushing back for the old timers. For the new generation, a fresh page will be opened in Indian football almanac.
Merdeka is no ordinary tournament for India. Malaysia are no ordinary opponents either. Both have huge significance in the history of the Senior Indian Men’s team, who played their first match 75 years ago.
Records say India, since 1959, have participated in the Merdeka Cup 17 times, which is more than in any other international tournament India figured in since 1947. At the international arena, India have played Malaysia 31 times, which is more than any other opponents India have played against.
No wonder, it prompted Blue Tigers Head Coach Igor Stimac to share his thoughts on why Merdeka is special to India. “We’ve played the Merdeka 17 times and ended runners-up on two occasions in the past. So, I definitely see a chance there. The first game will be a very difficult one for us against Malaysia.
“It will be a good match experience for us, as they have been playing well in recent times and have gotten draws against two higher-ranked opponents, China and Syria at home. I think we can safely say that they are an emotional side who are highly energised by their fans.
“I discussed with my captain Sunil (Chhetri) about the Merdeka, and he told me, boss, I can’t wait. There will be a huge crowd and I expect an exciting game. We want to win and progress to the final, and make sure that our boys leave it all out on the pitch,” he said.
Well, history and tradition are not the only reasons why Stimac and his boys are determined to make their mark in Merdeka. The 100 Days’ countdown to the AFC Asian Cup just began in Doha, Qatar, on October 4, 2023, as the 24 teams started their preparations for the continent’s biggest footballing event. The October FIFA International Window gives four of these teams the chance to test themselves on a somewhat smaller yet not-so-quaint stage in the capital city of Malaysia.
The Merdeka Tournament, which has gained the name ‘Mini Asia Cup’ over the years, will take place after a gap of nearly a decade, after AIFF President Mr Kalyan Chaubey requested his FA Malaysia counterpart Dato Haji Hamidin bin Haji Mohammad Amin to invite India. Also joining the Blue Tigers and hosts Malaysia in the tournament are Tajikistan.
The tournament will be contested in a knockout format, where Tajikistan have already reached the final following Palestine’s withdrawal. Malaysia and India will face off on Friday, October 13, with the winners taking on the Central Asians in the final on Tuesday, October 17.
India last participated in the Merdeka in 2001, when they lost their matches against hosts Malaysia (1-2), Thailand (0-2), and Uzbekistan (1-2). Current Assistant Coach and former Blue Tigers centre-back Mahesh Gawali was a part of that squad and believes that the current crop of boys is more prepared to take on their opponents in the tournament.
“I played the Merdeka once, but we could not win, as the level of our opponents was quite high. But I feel that this time, the boys are much better prepared; they are a much better side. We are positive that we will do well in Kuala Lumpur,” said Gawali.
AIFF Secretary General Dr Shaji Prabhakaran believes that the Merdeka Tournament could be a favourable opportunity for the Blue Tigers to clock some progress ahead of the much-anticipated FIFA World Cup Qualifiers in November and the AFC Asian Cup in January.
“The Merdeka Cup is coming, and that provides us a favourable opportunity to further progress as a team. We are really looking forward to our boys giving their best on the pitch. I am sure the players are looking forward to the same too,” said Dr Prabhakaran.