Also known as the “Blue Tigers”, the Indian senior national football team is governed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). It falls under the nations listed under the registration of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and also the World Governing body FIFA. The current team is headed by British manager Stephen Constantine and Sunil Chhetri is the skipper. India is presently at the 102nd spot in the FIFA rankings and has shown a steep rise in the past few years.
India played its first International match Australia in Sydney, back in 1938 losing 5-3 to the hosts. The 1950’s era was known as the “Golden Years”. In fact, India played its first major tournament at the 1948 London Olympics led by the legendary Sailen Manna. The Asian outfit lost their first-round match to heavyweights France 2-1 and crashed out of the mega event. Incidentally, the match was India’s first International match as an Independent nation.
Indian National Football Team even qualified for the 1950 FIFA World Cup, but various reasons barred them from making an appearance in mega event which was hosted by Brazil. Inadequate foreign exchange reserves, the long journey by ship to South America and also the problem of bare-foot players were the reasons why the AIFF opted not to participate in the biggest football show on earth. If India had played in the World Cup, they were scheduled to play the likes of Sweden, Italy and Paraguay.
Although the 1952 Helsinki Olympics was a disaster losing their only game to Yugoslavia by 10-1, the 1956 edition was the most memorable one. India defeated hosts Australia 4-2 to script a historic victory and make a cut to the semi-finals of the competition. Having lost to Yugoslavia 4-1 in the semis, the “Blue Tigers” finished fourth and the achievement is considered to be one of the greatest in the history of Indian football. Neville D’ Souza scored a hat-trick in that match. The team’s front line was spearheaded by the talismanic P.K. Banerjee who is regarded as one of the finest players the country ever produced and also one of the best among Asia.
The 1964 AFC Asian Cup was another major landmark for the Indian football team, as they finished runners-up in the tournament losing to hosts Israel to finish second. Most importantly they piped Asian giants South Korea 2-0 in the group stage along with a victory over Hong Kong. Inder Singh and Chuni Goswami hogged the limelight during the meet which was also India’s best show in the AFC Asian Cup. Surprisingly, India’s next appearance in the spectacle was in 1984 after a gap of 20 years!
Till then, Indian Football Team was one of the powerhouses of Asian football, but it encountered a huge decline in the following two decades. The 1984 Asian Cup was an unfortunate outing, the Indians finished at the bottom of the group stage losing each fixture save the one against Iran. After quite a few years in hibernation, India finally got a much-needed break winning the South Asian Games in 1985 and 1987 respectively. Although, the state of national team deteriorated to the end of the century, yet they finished on a high by winning back to back SAFF Championships in 1997 and 1999.
The 21st century saw the rise of Bhaichung Bhutia, one of the most celebrated players to have ever donned the blue jersey. It was under Bob Houghton’s reign that India got its luck back, winning the 2007 Nehru Cup by edging past Syria 1-0 in the final. The 2008 AFC Challenge Cup gave India another break. The “Blue Tigers” managed to win the tournament and earn a direct qualification to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. It was their first appearance in the continental cup after 27 years. India was drawn with Australia, South Korea and Bahrain in the group stages with India losing against each of them.
Since Stephen Constantine took charge of the Indian Football team, it has shown a steep rise in the rankings. The “Tigers” broke into the top 100 of the FIFA rankings for the first time since two decades in 2017. In fact, India was at the 166th position in 2015. The Sunil Chhetri led side has shown great improvement in the past few years, and a young pool of talents has taken the football to a whole new level. India has already qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup which is scheduled to be staged in the United Arab Emirates.
Although Indian National Football Team had failed miserably in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifications, their next target would be to make a mark in 2022 World Cup Qualifiers. The Nation is still waiting for the day the “Blue Tigers” will make its debut in the football’s greatest spectacle.