Can India qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup?
Legend has it that India blew the chance to place itself on the global football map by withdrawing from the 1950 World Cup (then called the Jules Rimet Cup) for its unsuccessful attempt at challenging FIFA’s ruling against barefoot players. While some suggest this to be the central reason for India pulling out of the tournament, others advocate it was a cover up story for the financial crunch, communication gap and lack of time to select and prepare a team for the tournament on the part of the All India Football Federation.
Whatever be the vindication for this almost criminal act for the development of the beautiful game in the country, a self-righteous AIFF had no idea about how big an opportunity it was failing to grasp. Who knows how things would have shaped up if India had flown to Brazil at the half point mark in the 20th century. In actuality, the state of things in Indian football has been on a virtual freefall since then; the nation even hitting its worst ever FIFA rankings on multiple occasions.
Rays of hope
Having said that, there had been the occasional silver linings after the turn of the millennium (read the double Nehru Cup coup and the rekindling of the domestic league structure) and in a major accomplishment, India also bagged the hosting rights for the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup. In another major first, the team recently made its way into the second round of the 2018 Russia World Cup qualifiers, after seven previous unsuccessful attempts, following a 2-0 (agg) win over neighbours Nepal.
In the second round, India joined 39 other teams which were divided into eight groups of five each. Out of these, 12 teams – the top team from each group and the four best second-placed teams – will progress into the third and final qualifying round for the World Cup. Earlier this month, the draws for the second round took place and India (ranked 147 in the latest FIFA rankings) have been drawn with Iran (ranked 40), Oman (97), Turkmenistan (59) and Guam (175) in Group D. To be played on home and away basis, the matches will begin from 11 June.
June 11, 2015 – India vs Oman
June 16, 2015 – Guam vs India
September 8, 2015 – India vs Iran
October 8, 2015 – Turkmenistan vs India
October 13, 2015 – Oman vs India
November 12, 2015 – India vs Guam
March 24, 2016 – Iran vs India
March 29, 2016 – India vs Turkmenistan
Talking about competition, here’s what is in store for India in its first-ever appearance in the second round of World Cup qualifiers:
Let’s start with the lowest ranked opponent that India will be facing. Having played against each other only once, with India taking home the win with a comfortable 4-0 scoreline – and with Guam, not even being able to defeat Laos, it looks unlikely that they will pose a challenge to India. Since 2013, Guam have played seven matches – including the loss to India – and only won twice, against Chinese Taipei (ranked 179) and Cambodia (also ranked 179).
Besides those, they have drawn with Laos and Aruba while losing to Aruba, India and Myanmar. Most of Guam’s national players ply their trade in the lower tiers of the American Soccer league. Guam’s ranking of 175 is not far below their highest of 160, achieved under current coach Gary White. Under White, Guam has made tremendous progress but beating India will be close to impossible. For India, playing away might be a little tricky but shouldn’t pose a deep challenge.
Turkmenistan beat Laos and Cambodia but they also lost to Philippines, Afghanistan, and North Korea in recent times. Turkmenistan for their part have also never lost to Iran, last beating them in 1996. Only three of the Turkmenistan national team players ply their football outside the country – one in Czech Republic and two in Uzbekistan – and this is where they lag behind.
India have an increasing list of players playing outside the country and with the Indian Super League bringing in a lot of foreign exposure, India should be well-prepared. But let’s remember that Turkmenistan have never lost to Hong Kong and Thailand and have beaten Vietnam five out of six times. They will put up a significant challenge away from home, as the conditions will be relatively unfamiliar for the Indians.
Last time Oman met India was in 2012. India were thrashed 5-1 in Muscat, but a significant number of senior players were absent, including India’s leading goal scorer Sunil Chhetri. Recently, Oman lost to Algeria, Australia, South Korea and China, all higher ranked teams but they have managed to beat Kuwait and Malaysia.
The one big advantage Oman has over India is the fact that they have played a lot more matches than India in 2014. India played only two matches all of last year while Oman played 16 matches. The other arsenal that Oman has up their sleeve is their captain and goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi who plays for Wigan Athletic, which competes in the second division of English football.
They also have a French coach and are ranked inside the top 100 teams in the world. Beating them both at home and away from home will be difficult for the Indians – even pulling off two draws would be a great achievement. Oman was criticized for their poor performance in the Gulf Cup in 2013, but they bounced back in 2014 with a 4th place finish. India has beaten Oman before so an upset can’t be ruled out.
Hosting Iran, who featured in last year’s World Cup and have been one of the most consistent Asian teams, would provide the much-needed exposure the Indian team has been longing. As would going and playing in Iran. A lot has changed since the two last played each other in 1992. But with a new head coach and a new look team, India should aim to play their hearts out and hope for a miracle.
The three-time Asian Cup winners qualified for the World Cup on four occasions (winning a game against the United States) and has a number of players playing abroad. The international exposure that Iran gets is a boost for their experience. Recently, they have played against Chile, Sweden, Iraq, Bahrain, South Korea, Nigeria, Argentina and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
If the men in blue seem like facing a tough task in order to realise their World Cup dream, there is no better man to take charge of the mission than Stephen Constantine. The 52-year-old’s second spell as the manager of the national team has coincided with the side making it past the first round of qualification for the first time.
Subsequent to the appointment of an ambitious and well-travelled manager, the team also witnessed the rise of a bunch of talented footballers over the two legs against Nepal. In his first match in charge of the team, the British manager handed debuts to Sandesh Jhingan, Pritam Kotal, Saumik Dey and Eugeneson Lyngdoh based on their current form in the I-league and the result was there for everyone to see.
Constantine’s efforts have been further boosted by the consistent hard work behind the scenes at Bengaluru FC and East Bengal – two of the top three clubs of the I-league (as of April 26) – that have supplied more than half of the players in the last two starting XIs for the men in blue.
The game in this land of 1.2 billion people is coming of age but to imagine India getting through this round of qualification would be jumping the gun. Plenty of work is still required to be done at the grassroots level but the motivation of earning a World Cup berth should be a good place to start for the players donning the Indian colours presently.
If, by design or chance, India happens to make the most of this opportunity, it would be a requiem of sorts for the ghost of 1950. As for the development of the game, we all know what wonders the country’s 1983 Cricket World Cup win did for the sport in India.