The group winners and five best runners-up teams will advance to the main tournament.

The Indian football team will compete against Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Cambodia in the third round of AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers 2022. These teams are behind India in the FIFA rankings, but the campaign is not going to be easy considering the team’s inconsistency under Igor Stimac. The stakes are high and India need to top the group to secure direct qualification to the AFC Asian Cup. 

Especially after the astonishing display in the Asian Cup 2019, not qualifying for this edition of the tournament will be nothing less than a disaster for Indian football. As they say, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” Keeping that in mind and fingers crossed, here we look at the five reasons why the India football team must qualify for AFC Asian Cup 2023.

5. Justice to talent pool in country

Liston Colaco
Liston Colaco and Jeakson Singh will be among the young players to watch out for (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

Thanks to the Indian Super League and I-League, India possesses the biggest talent pool in the last two decades. The recently concluded domestic season followed the four foreigners’ rule, opening doors for several Indian players to make the playing XI for their respective teams. We saw the youngsters taking charge in clutch moments. Jamshedpur FC and Hyderabad FC were among the clubs who reaped the rewards for trusting the youngsters.

The young guns have shown that they are ready to shine on the International stage. It all boils down to the coach to make the most out of this. The players need the chance to prove themselves. If the team fails to qualify, it would be unfair to the boys.

4. Prove their mettle

Jordan vs India
India have lost each of their last three international friendlies (Courtesy: [email protected])

With the Indian football team struggling for consistency and results, the interest of fans seems to be dying down. Support for the national team has always been problematic in the country and recent results haven’t helped. The most recent example could be the need for the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to make all tickets for the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers complimentary, fearing a low turnout.

Coach Stimac’s tactics and the players’ performances have also drawn criticism from the fans. The Blue Tigers have lost each of their last three international friendlies. Hence, the preparation for the forthcoming Asian Qualifiers hasn’t been ideal. However, all that would be put to rest if India secure a direct path to the Asian Cup 2023.

The stakes are higher than ever before and the team need to show what they have got. It is high time that the Indian football team proves their mettle and answers all the questions on the pitch.

3. Provide much-needed stability

Jordan vs India
With turmoil in its federation, India’s qualification to the Asian Cup will calm many minds (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

With the Supreme Court handing the keys of the AIFF to its newly appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA), Indian football is in an overhaul phase. Fears of a potential ban from FIFA have also worsened the situation, both among fans and stakeholders.

On top of that, the central government’s decision to slash the funding to the AIFF from ₹30 crore in 2019-20 to ₹5 crore in the current financial year has raised questions over progress and development in Indian football. The 85% drop in funding means football now has the lowest budget among all other major emerging sports in the country.

However, the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers present a perfect opportunity for the Indian football team to show that there is indeed progress and that the national team have hit the next level under Croatian coach Igor Stimac.

Qualification for the main tournament will also bring much-needed stability and calm amidst the storm of confusion and questions in recent weeks. What it will also bring is a reassessment of the grants to Indian football as assured by the government in the Annual Calendar Training and Competitions (ACTC) meeting.

2. Win over fans’ confidence

Igor Stimac
Stimac’s playing style and setup have drawn criticism from fans in recent times (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

A large section of Indian football fans have been left unimpressed by the Blue Tigers’ style of play in recent years. The major concern has been the lack of goals. The Indian football team have struggled to score from open play even against lower-ranked opponents like Bangladesh and Afghanistan. In the most recent three international friendlies that they played, Stimac’s men scored just once, while conceding seven goals.

Infact, scoring goals and not conceding them has been a recurring problem for India under Stimac. In 25 matches under the Croatian, the Indian football team have scored just 26 goals, while conceding 38 times.

Adopting a ‘defend first, attack later’ approach and then conceding these many goals has certainly not gone well with the fans. While these statistics need to change over time, producing results will in many ways bring back the support and trust of the faithful.

With India facing much lower-ranked opposition in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, fans would want the Blue Tigers to take an offensive approach. But above all, they would hope for results and a second successive Asian Cup qualification.

1. Future of Indian Football

AFC Asian Cup
Sunil Chhetri will be desperate to make his third Asian Cup appearance (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

With everything happening around the world of Indian football, one wouldn’t be wrong to say that the future of the domestic game is at stake here. For long seen as the next biggest sport in the country after cricket, Indian football seems to have regressed in recent years.

What the AFC Asian Cup qualification will do above all is provide a statement that there is hope for the game in India. That the future of football looks bright. It would also lay down a path, a framework for the country to aim for.

What it would also do is give a potential farewell to captain and legend Sunil Chhetri. India’s record appearance-maker and top scorer has for long wished to play one final time on the Asian Cup stage. He could have that wish fulfilled, while the future prospects will also have a platform to showcase their talents to the world.

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