In recent times, Indian football has been on a steady rise with the spike in rankings and another Asian Cup qualification secured by the Blue Tigers. However, one stage that still continues to the Men in Blue is the World Cup. In the entire history of their existence, Indian football team has never played at the biggest stage of them all. There is a myth circulating around the Internet that India did not play the 1950 World Cup due to not being allowed to play barefoot. This is a completely false story with the truth not being known to many Indian football fans.
We take a look down the memory lane and the recent past to see how the Indian national football team has fared in the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.
Since the start of the World Cup in 1938, India did not participate in any of the qualifiers for the first three editions. The Indian side’s first tryst with World Cup football was way back in 1950 when the team qualified to play for the World Cup finals. The qualification was successful for the Blues as the teams from Indonesia, Philippines and Myanmar withdrew from the tournament. However, before the start of the World Cup, the Indian team withdrew from the competition citing lack of finances for the team’s travel to the host nation Brazil. The AIFF’s budget constraints were the reason for India’s absence from the World Cup and not the ‘barefoot’ reason as perpetrated falsely amongst many Indian football fans around the country.
After the withdrawal from 1950 Brazil World Cup, India did not enter any of the qualification till the 1982 Spain World Cup. This era included the Golden Era of the Indian football team from 1951 to 1964 under coach Syed Abdul Rahim, as the team became one of the best sides of the Asian continent. The team won the Asian Games gold twice (1951 and 1962) during these years and finished runners up at the 1964 AFC Asian Cup losing in the final to Israel.
India returned to the World Cup Qualifiers picture for the 1986 Mexico World Cup and was drawn against Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh in the First Round of qualifiers where the group winners progressed to the Second Round. India finished second behind Indonesia as the side won two matches, drew three and lost once against Indonesia.
India withdrew from the qualifiers for the 1990 World Cup in Italy but returned again four years later for the 1994 United States World Cup qualifiers. This time around, the first round consisted of six groups of five nations each with the winners progressing to the final round. India was drawn against South Korea, Bahrain, Lebanon and Hong Kong in Group D. The Blues managed to win just one match against Hong Kong and finished at the bottom of the group, bringing an end to their qualification campaign.
During the 1998 France World Cup qualifiers, India was drawn against Qatar, Sri Lanka, and Philippines in the Group 10 of Asia’s first round of qualifiers. India finished third in the group as the teams played at a single venue in Saudi Arabia. India won, lost and drew one game each during these qualifiers with their win coming against Philippines.
The 2002 World Cup was the first World Cup to be held outside Europe or The Americas as South Korea and Japan co-hosted the grand tournament. The AFC qualifiers saw India pitted against the likes of United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Brunei in the Group 8. The Blues finished in the third spot again as they finished just one point behind group winners United Arab Emirates. India lost just one match against United Arab Emirates beating Brunei twice and the UAE once. The UAE went on to progress to the AFC Playoff where they lost out against Iran.
The next edition of the World Cup was held in Germany marking a return to the European continent. India was drawn in Group 3 in the Second Round of qualifiers against Oman, Singapore and continental heavyweights Japan. India ended up finishing on the third spot in the table winning once against Singapore and drawing against Oman, losing all the other games exiting another qualification process.
The 2010 World Cup saw the first edition of the premier tournament to be held in the African continent as South Africa won the bid to host the cup. During the AFC qualifiers, new rules were introduced that introduced the seeding concept. India, seeded 28th in the AFC, faced off against the 13th ranked Lebanon in a two-legged playoff in the first round of qualification. The Indian side lost out with a 6-3 aggregate score, losing 4-1 away in Lebanon and drawing 2-2 at home, crashing out of the qualifiers.
The 2014 World Cup was hosted by Brazil as the tournament returned to South America after a gap of 36 years. The AFC utilized the similar seeding process for the qualifiers, however, this time India was ranked 27 and was awarded a bye to the second knockout round. India faced United Arab Emirates in a two-legged playoff for a chance to advance to the third round but fell short with a 5-2 loss. The Blues lost 3-0 away in the Emirates and drew 2-2 at home.
The latest FIFA World Cup qualifiers for the tournament in Russia saw a change in the format for qualification from the Asian confederation. The teams ranked 35-46 faced off in two-legged knockout matches in the first round with six sides advancing to the second round, where they would be grouped with four other teams. These qualifiers also acted as qualifiers for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. India ranked 35 faced off against Nepal in the first round emerging victorious over two legs with a 2-0 aggregate scoreline with skipper Sunil Chhetri scoring two goals in the home leg.
In the second round, India was grouped along with Guam, Oman, Turkmenistan and Asian giants Iran in the Group D. India had a disappointing campaign with just one win from the eight matches that came against Guam at home. The Blue Tigers lost all their other matches against the group’s nations. The only positive that arose from this qualification campaign was India’s successful qualification for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
India’s World Cup qualification dream seems to be a distant dream considering the recent trends in the World Cup qualifiers trends. However, the side has been constantly improving with the ranking reaching sub-100 in 2017 as Stephen Constantine’s men continue their journey in world football. A successful run in the Asian Cup will further solidify their credentials and then establish a foundation for success in World Cup qualifiers in the future.