Asian Games 2018: Can Indian football team breach the knockout hurdle
Many won't believe this, but gone are the days when Indian football would be a laughing stock for both their own countrymen and the rest of the world.
The current team under the able leadership of coach Stephen Constantine and captain Sunil Chettri is giving even the best in the trade a run for their money.
They've not only qualified for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 in flying colours, but now have also made the cut for the upcoming Jakarta Asian Games 2018. This is the golden opportunity for the Indian team to bring back the lost glory of their golden past and will give it their all to breach the knockout hurdles, and at least make a top eight finish, if they can't have a chance at the podium.
Asiad [1950-1970]: The Golden Days
When Asian Games had officially begun, India wasn't as weak as it is currently. They were the Asian powerhouses, and officially, were the first independent Asian team to make the cut for the FIFA World Cup in 1950 [Indonesia did it in 1938, but as a Dutch colony], though it is another matter that they withdrew from the mega fiesta at the last moment.
However, this never affected their prowess, and they clinched the gold medal at the inaugural Asian Games, held in New Delhi in 1951. Though there was a brief lull at Manila Asiad in 1954, where India failed to make it to the semis, the team skilfully bounced back, clinching the 4th place at both Melbourne Olympics 1956 and Tokyo Asiad 1958.
The golden moment came again at Jakarta Asiad 1962, where India clinched the top honours, defeating the current Asian powerhouse South Korea by a handsome margin of 2-1. Following it up with a runners-up finish at Asia Cup 1964, India looked all set for a resurgence towards maintaining the Asian supremacy. However, destiny had other plans.
Asiad [1970 - today]: The Decline
Following a shock exit at Bangkok Asiad 1966, India bounced back in 1970 Asian Games, held once again at Bangkok. Losing to Myanmar by 0-2, India bounced back in time, defeating Japan 1-0 to clinch the bronze medal. However, that was the last time India ever climbed the podium in any Asian football tournament.
They did reach the quarterfinals in 1982 Asian Games held once again at New Delhi, but it's been 48 years since India ever entered the semifinals of Asian Games football.
What lies ahead for Indian football at Jakarta Asiad 2018
This time, however, India are no more the whipping boys of Asia. Following the first ever qualification by the latest standards for the AFC Asian Cup, without resorting to any wildcard entry, India have made a huge jump in terms of both teamwork and rankings, from a lowly 173 by late 2013, to a respectable 97th by mid-2018.
Though their current ranking might fall due to FIFA's upcoming transition to new ELO ratings, it is unlikely that India's stature as an emerging Asian powerhouse will be affected. Initially, under the fear of being axed by the current government owing to their new guidelines for qualifying the Asian Games, the Indian men's football team is reported to have finally made it as of now, with their women counterparts yet to get an official approval.
For those unaware, the current format of Asian Games football is an Under-23 tournament on the lines of the tournament played at Summer Olympics, with only three over-aged players allowed as per the latest standards. Given the current Indian team is almost replete with such players, a few noble exceptions apart, it was no surprise when coach Constantine lobbied for India's entry to the Asian Games.
While the places are yet to be decided, if India play straight and don't choke in intense situations, they have a golden opportunity to enter the quarterfinals. Some of the players are also enriched with the experience under FIFA U 17 World Cup, where they made teams like USA and Colombia sweat for victory. Only time will tell the fate of this team, but we hope that India continue to make their mark on the right note, and regain their original status as the 'giant killers' of world football.