With the recent conclusion of the Champions League final in Berlin, the attention of the entire football fraternity now turns to the Copa America tournament scheduled to take place in Chile, starting from the 11th June. Amidst all this hype, what goes unnoticed by most of the Indian Football fraternity is that the Indian national football squad is gearing up for its 2018 FIFA World Cup preliminary qualification matches against Oman and Guam.
The Indian Football team play their first match at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on June 11 while the next match against Guam will be played in Guam on June 16. Further in recent times, following the 2-0 aggregate win over Nepal, India has managed to leap six places to the 141st position in the latest rankings released by FIFA.
Previously, India stood ranked at 147th position having made its way up from an embarrassing 173rd position. Also, the Indian Team holds the 22nd position among the Asian countries. Iran ranked at 41 is the top ranked Asian team followed by Japan ranked at 52 and South Korea at 58.
The 2-0 aggregate win over the Nepal Football team is debatably the most important win for the Indian Team in recent times as it has paved the way for India to compete in the 2018 Russia World Cup Qualifiers stage. Furthermore, it can be implied from the above that the Indian Football team will be playing at least eight crucial international matches this year which provides an opportunity for the Indian fraternity to cheer their home team.
Notwithstanding the above, the Indian team finds itself on slippery ground. Facing Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Guam, the task is clearly cut out for our national team. Constant changes in the coaching staff and low attendance in both domestic and international matches are a few concerns which have further made the task of the team to qualify for Russia more difficult.
Having said that, one must also take into account that at this juncture football in India even though very popular in the domestic circuit finds itself overshadowed by the game of cricket and, that is probably the very reason why there is not much hype built around the match scheduled to take place on June 11th in Bengaluru.
The way ahead for the Indian Football Team
Over a period of ten months, India will play against the other three teams who find themselves in Group D. The Asian qualifiers begin on June 11, 2015 and run until March 29, 2016 and following the same, countries that finish top of the eight groups and the four best placed second placed teams will progress to the third and final qualification phase for the World Cup in Russia. In addition, besides progressing into the third phase the teams will also automatically qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE.
Speaking on India’s chances in the second qualification phase Sunil Chhetri remarks "Tough, very tough. What we would like to do as a team and as a player is that we would like to be as fit as possible. For the first game, I think we're going to get 10 days because the league is finishing on the 31st (May) and we have a match on the 11th (June). Then onwards, I just hope that we get enough days to prepare. It's not going to be easy. Teams like Iran who are one of the best in Asia, Oman is one of the most improved teams in Asia - they are not going to be easy, for that matter even Turkmenistan or Guam."
On paper, the head to head scenario of India with the other three teams in Group D is not one to be proud of, but it is not something to be embarrassed about either. Out of the 6 games with Iran, India has lost 4, drawn 1 and won 1. With Oman, the Indian team stands with only a solitary win from 4 games played and with Turkmenistan, India has drawn once and lost once in the 4 games played.
India have played Guam only once in a match where the Indian team had emerged victorious. The national team coach Stephen Constantine also explains, “It's a tough draw but it's always better to be in the draw than out of it, and we will do all that is possible to get a result.” With Saudi Arabia, Australia, Qatar, Japan, Iraq and South Korea being among the other teams competing, it can arguably be said that the Indian team finds itself in a relatively better position.
Below are the fixtures:-
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.
Does India have a chance against these teams?
The Iranians are the clear favourites to finish on the top spot in Group D. Having featured in last year’s World Cup, Iran has been one of the most consistent teams in Asia. Playing them would give India the much-needed challenge and realistically speaking, India needs to give more than everything on the pitch to overcome this challenge.
What tilts the scales further in favour of Iran is the international exposure that they receive by playing against teams such as Chile, Sweden, and Argentina and not to forget the number of players who play abroad.
Although Oman and Iran do not stand on the same threshold when it comes to football but that still does not make it any easier for the Indian team. It was only three years back that Oman had last met India. That game ended in a walloping if nothing else with India losing 5-1. However, in 2014, India has only played two international matches whereas Oman has played 16. Thus, to win the match India will have to count on the experience of senior players in the team.
This will probably be the trickiest tie of the group for India, as the Turkmenistan football team rides on a reputation of winning against teams such as Iran but losing out to teams like Afghanistan, and Philippines. It will be interesting to note the adaptability of the Indian team when it finds itself in unfamiliar conditions away from home against Turkmenistan. Nevertheless, India is the clear favourite to win this match.
This will be by far the only match where in all probability the Indian team shall have it easy. Last time the two teams met each other, India won by 4-0. Even though the Guam football team is seemingly improving tremendously, under their new coach beating them should be a task which can be managed by the Indian team.
As optimism would have it, belonging to the Indian football fraternity it would be an absolute pleasure to watch India beat the other three teams of Group D and qualify for the third phase. But, there is a stark contrast between optimism and reality and the reality in this case suggests that beating Iran would be highly unlikely.
Keeping that in mind, drawing, or sneaking a win against Oman, and beating Turkmenistan and Guam should be considered as a good campaign for India. With the advent of ISL, the international exposure that the Indian players are getting via ISL, it will perhaps take a bit longer for the World Cup dream to materialise into reality. Nevertheless, that should not deter us from cheering our team which will be representing us on June 11 in Bengaluru.