Can India make it to the 2026 World Cup?
As I glided past hundreds of videos of England fans celebrating in wild fashion after beating Colombia on penalties, I thought to myself, what a great feeling it must be to see your own country win on such a big stage in a dramatic fashion.
I was supporting England in that game, and even though they weren't my country, I went ballistic when Eric Dier put his penalty past Ospina to seal a famous English victory. The only thought I had in the aftermath was, what if India made it to the World Cup.
The World Cup isn't all about winning games and progressing through the rounds. All one has to do is to look at the Peruvian fans, for the team managed no goals in their first two games yet had a great support from the fans. A better example would be the Panama team, who qualified for their first World Cup this year, and had the time of their lives even if their team was getting an absolute beating.
An interesting image was when Panama scored against England, to cut the deficit to 6-1, yet was celebrating as if they had won the thing. It was beautiful to watch. One often underestimates the importance of simply qualifying for the World Cup. The event is like one huge party for a month where different cultures unite to celebrate football. To have Indian fans, supporting the Indian team with vigor and passion would be amazing, and to be a part of that would be even better.
Now some might say why 2026 and why not 2022 in Qatar. Mind you, India has never qualified for a World Cup, and four years is probably too little a time to make drastic changes and get India to qualify for the World Cup. India is currently ranked 97th in the world. Lowest ranked nation, to make the World Cup this year, excluding the hosts, were Saudi Arabia ranked at 67th. At the moment, 4-5 slots are given to Asian teams, and with the likes of Japan, South Korea, and Iran, it is difficult for the Indian team. With the 2026 World Cup, the slots will be increased to 9, meaning higher chances for the Indian team to qualify. '
India can look to Belgium for inspiration who was placed 67th back in 2007. They didn't qualify for either Euros 2008 or the World Cup 2010. Now, they're one of the best teams in the world and marched to the semi-finals. India is no Belgium, and will probably not create the same talent; lack of facilities, weak administration among other factors are to be blamed.
A big achievement was qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 to be played in the UAE. India is in a good group, compared to what they could have got, as they avoided all the Asian/Oceanic teams that made it to the World Cup. It shows the progress of the team. But they must frequently challenge themselves against higher ranked tougher teams. The friendlies that India ends up playing, are against lower ranked teams, which could possibly be AIFF's ploy to increase the ranking. But in the long run, the games against tougher opposition will only develop the team further.
Thailand, Bahrain, and UAE - they are all tough teams and even qualifying for the next round will be a success for India. The 2026 World Cup is 8 years away. India's key marksman, Sunil Chettri, will be reaching the twilight of his career. It is essential that India focusses on the youth as well. They cannot let his retirement stall India's football bloom.
Recent tournament performance against Kenya and New Zealand was encouraging. Chettri's plea induced the fans to throng the stadium. Can you imagine an atmosphere like that at the grandest stage, the World Cup?. We, as fans, have to back them all the way and the support must stay strong throughout. This is a dream and a revolution. India can achieve it.