The Blue Tigers will play in the country for the first time in nearly three years.
India’s AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualifiers are set to begin in June. The Blue Tigers are training hard to prepare themselves for some challenging games set to take place at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata in just over a month’s time.
Igor Stimac’s side has been placed in a relatively comfortable group, alongside Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. All their opponents are ranked lower than them in the FIFA World Rankings. However, they’ve come into the qualifiers as major underdogs. With India set to play all the games at home, expectations will be at least to qualify for the Asian Cup.
Playing on home turf is normally judged to be advantageous for any team. But the pressure of entertaining the fans and keeping up with expectations can also have a negative impact on players. So let’s look at the pros and cons for India in playing the Asian Cup qualifiers at home.
Home crowd advantage
India will be playing on home turf in nearly three years. In fact, the last time they had played a game at home was against Bangladesh in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers at the Salt Lake Stadium in October 2019. Since then, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all games have taken place abroad.
The Blue Tigers will return to playing games at home in over two years as fans will also make a return to the stadium. Around 50% of the Salt Lake Stadium’s capacity should be open to fans if the Covid-19 situation doesn’t turn worse during that period.
This means that India will finally get to play with a proper home crowd for the first time since the pandemic began. Players will understandably be charged up to perform for their fans. The energy generated by the supporters should be enough to invigorate the players and inspire them to play some exciting attacking football.
The home crowd advantage will also put the opponents under pressure, as it did to ATK Mohun Bagan’s opponents in their AFC Cup qualifiers recently. The support of potentially 35,000+ at the Salt Lake Stadium should be a huge advantage for Stimac’s side and give them the motivation they need to get big wins.
Familiarity with conditions
The grim reality for all teams involved in the AFC Cup qualifiers is that they can expect difficult conditions to play in. Kolkata experiences a torrid summer in the middle of June with spells of rain. But the temperature and humidity levels are possibly going to soar high up – reaching over 30-35 degrees Celsius even in the evening.
Fortunately for most Indian players, they are accustomed to the conditions. Stimac’s men will be training in Kolkata for at least two weeks before the qualifiers take place. Hopefully, their bodies should get acclimatized better to deal with the conditions than the opposition players.
The Indian players should be more adept in performing in these conditions than their opposition. They are familiar with playing in such weather and know how to deal with the situation in a better way.
Ability to express themselves
Fans have heavily criticized India’s playing style under Igor Stimac. The Blue Tigers have tried adopting a possession-based style but had to rely on being more defensive recently. But now with the crowd behind them and playing lower-ranked nations, they can finally look to play the attacking football the fans want them to.
With the energy of the crowd in them, the Indian players should look to adopt a fast-paced, slick attacking style in the Asian Cup qualifiers. A lot of players have played at the Salt Lake Stadium and know how to excel on its surface. With thousands cheering them on, the Indian players should be able to express themselves better and produce thrilling attacking football at home.
Added pressure in front of fans
Crowd support and the fans’ adoration will surely energize the Indian players in the AFC Cup qualifiers. However, there are also other aspects to consider when playing at home after nearly three years. The Blue Tigers will be under pressure to produce their best possible performances. The fans will be expecting nothing, but the very best against such opposition.
India’s last game at home, the 1-1 draw against Bangladesh, left many fans frustrated and wanting more. Repeating something similar can cause the fans to lose faith. In addition to that, it would put external pressure on the players to improve their performances.
The pressure of having to play thrilling attacking football could also affect them; leading to a drop in confidence levels and eventually leading to mistakes. Stimac will hope things don’t lead to that.
The need to play expansive, attacking football
The philosophy of Igor Stimac for the national team has been to make them into a well-oiled machine. His thinking has been to mold a team that is capable of playing possession-based, high-intensity attacking football. But the Blue Tigers have failed to show that in the years under his management.
They did impress in the SAFF Championship last year, picking up big wins over Maldives and Nepal. The Blue Tigers have to produce something similar to impress those watching in the stands.
India will be expected to play convincing, attacking football against the opposition ahead in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. They can’t go defensive or rely on counter-attacks and expect fans to gladly accept it. This pressure of having to play high-quality attacking football and score lots of goals to win over the fans can be a point of pressure for India in the qualifiers.