King-size challenge awaits India
The Indian football team’s report card for 2023 is unusually impressive.
BENGALURU: Eleven matches played. Seven matches were won. Four drawn but two of those converted to a more positive result in penalty shootouts. The Indian football team’s report card for 2023 is unusually impressive. There isn’t a dash of red anywhere to be found, quite an achievement for a team whose results typically show one foot forward and then two back.
On Thursday though, at the 700th Anniversary Stadium in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Igor Stimac’s team will face their toughest test yet of the calendar year. Iraq awaits them in their inaugural match of the 2023 Kings Cup. By no yardstick have their opponents so far been pushovers. But a positive result against the seventh-best team in Asia will be the strongest indication yet that the recent upturn in India’s onfield results is no flash in the pan.
It will also mark the start of a tough run of important games for the Blue Tigers. After the two games in Thailand against Iraq and one of Thailand or Lebanon, they will travel to Malaysia for the Merdeka Cup where they will face the hosts and one of Palestine or Tajikistan. By then, a number of players in this squad would have played in the Asian Games in China as well. Then comes the all-important 2026 World Cup Qualifier games against Kuwait and Qatar in November.
“I hope that we're going to give everything on the pitch to do something good against a strong side like Iraq, who are Arabian Gulf Cup champions,” said Stimac, whose first game as India coach came at the King’s Cup in 2019. “After beating Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they are one of the clear favourites in the upcoming Asian Cup. So it's going to be very difficult for us, but I hope our boys will enjoy the game."
The run of six games in two months will offer Stimac a chance to find out what his best eleven is ahead of the Asian Cup in January. Credit has to go to the All India Football Federation for the sheer number of matches the Indian team is playing. If no more friendlies are scheduled for the national team in 2023, the team will end up playing seventeen games over the calendar year (not counting the Asian Games). For reference, the England football team played the same number of games in both 2022 and 2023 combined. Gone are the days when India would end up playing a couple of matches a year at best!
But with different times come different challenges. The AIFF now have to figure out how to do justice to both the national team and the two leagues in the calendar. Stimac is already having to contend with opposition from clubs when it comes to calling up players. There have been reports that he will have to select only two players from a single club for the Asian Games, instead of the squad he wants.
For the King's Cup, India will be missing Sunil Chhetri, who opted to stay back for personal reasons. Chhetri’s absence means that it will be up to the likes of Lallianzuala Chhangte to take up a leadership role in attack. “The coach has created a great environment inside the team on and off the pitch,” said Chhangte. “It's important to put what we learn in training into the match. We are not just here to participate but to win. We are approaching this tournament seriously. Our first match against Iraq is going to be very difficult. I hope we can come up with a positive result.”