The fan following of FIFA World Cup in India is increasing by leaps and bounds. Tired from supporting foreign countries, many football enthusiasts question India’s chances of making through to the next World Cup. The anxiety exaggerates, when people watch debutants like Iceland holding a leading football giant, Argentina, to a 1-1 draw. Let's discuss what Indian Football team needs to go through to brace up in first ever winter FIFA World Cup at Qatar in 2022.
There are a total 47 members of AFC including India. FIFA, the international governing body has reserved 4.5 places for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). This means that 4 top teams in AFC World Cup qualification will go through to the FIFA World Cup. The fifth team has to play an inter confederations playoffs (home and away). Qatar is the host for the FIFA World Cup 2022, so it will be granted direct entry to the mega football event.
The Qualification Process
Total teams to take part in the AFC qualification for FIFA World Cup are 46 (excluding Qatar). These teams will be arranged in ascending order of their respective FIFA rankings. India currently sits at 14th place in AFC (with overall FIFA ranking of 97).
First Round (February - March 2019) – 12 National Teams ranked from 35 to 46 in AFC will play the preliminary round. Each team will be drawn against one opponent to play home and away fixtures. 6 teams (winners on aggregate score) will progress to the second round. India need not play this round because of their improved FIFA ranking.
Second Round (April 2019 - April 2020) – Six qualified teams of the First Round and 34 top AFC teams will be drawn into 8 groups. Each group will consist of 5 teams. Matches will be played in Round Robin format. Every team will face every other team of the group on home and away turfs. 3 points will be awarded for every win and 1 point for a draw. In case of equal points ranking will be decided on goal difference. The top team of each group and the 4 best second teams of the groups will breeze through the third round. India will be granted direct entry to this round. Last time India bowed out in this round as they finished last in their group consisting of Guam, Turkmenistan, Oman and the ultimate FIFA World Cup 2018 participants, Iran. India will be desperate to better their previous performance by progressing ahead this time. Leading the group will be a tough ask but finishing second in the group and progressing through as one of the best placed second teams will be definitely on the cards.
Third Round (September 2020 – September 2021) – If India makes it to this round it will be a fantastic milestone for the country. If India qualifies for this round, India will be only one step away from realizing its dream to play FIFA World Cup 2022, Qatar. In this round, all 12 teams will be divided into 2 groups. For one year every team will play home and away fixtures with its counterparts. Points and ranking rules will remain the same as the previous round. Top two teams of each group will receive the golden ticket to the FIFA World Cup 2022. The group will consist of Asian Giants like Australia, Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia. So, it will be a tough ask for the Blue Tigers to find a place among the top two places. In case India finishes the third round as the third-ranked team in the group, they can still fancy their chances to appear in the FIFA World Cup 2022.
Fourth Round (October 2021) – This round is applicable to the teams finishing third in their respective groups of the third round. The third-placed teams of each group will play home and away fixtures to decide which team will represent AFC in the inter-confederation playoff round. It is very difficult to expect India to finish among the top 3 countries in a highly competitive group consisting of top Asian Teams. However, if India can pull off a miracle like Syria (that finished third in their third round FIFA World Cup 2018 Qualification group) they can earn themselves a chance to fight for the place in an inter-confederation playoff round.
Fifth Round (November 2021) – The winner of the fourth round will play inter-confederation playoff against a team from one other confederation (CONCACAF, CONMEBOL or OFC). The opponent is selected by draws. The aggregate result from home and away fixtures will decide the team going to play the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. If India can make through as the team from AFC for inter-confederation playoffs, India is likely to face teams like Peru, Honduras, and New Zealand in this round.
What are the odds?
If all goes well for the Blue Tigers according to above mentioned, who knows, we might hear the national anthem of India being played on the biggest football stage in 2022. In addition to this, we have good news for all football fans in India. Since FIFA has decided to extend the number of teams from 32 to 48 from the 2026 World Cup onwards. India still holds a bright chance to participate in the 2026 FIFA World Cup jointly organized by USA, Mexico, and Canada.
In my opinion, to hope for India playing the World Cup in 2022 is unrealistic. The AIFF and Indians should target the 2026 world cup and plan accordingly. The Under-16 and Under-21 football must be focused on. Making them play against top teams in the similar age categories will boost their confidence and develop skills. It will kick off their preparation for the FIFA World Cup 2026.
Moreover, young footballers should be promoted to play in European Leagues rather than locking horns at the national league. The young players like Yan Dhanda (who currently plays for Swansea City FC in the Championships) and experienced players like Harmeet Singh (called 'the Norwegian Iniesta', currently plays in the top tier of Norwegian football with Sarpsborg 08) of Indian origin should be convinced to play for India sooner rather than later. It’s high time and the time is running out for the Indians.