Sunil Chhetri only notable face in Indian football team for Asian Games as ISL clubs refuse to play ball

There is talk of manager Igor Stimac, the loudest voice in the chorus to send a team to the Asiad, not even accompanying this side to China. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he chose not to.

Published: 13th September 2023 10:33 PM  |   Last Updated: 15th September 2023 10:54 AM   |  A+A-

Indian striker Sunil Chhetri

Indian striker Sunil Chhetri (Photo | PTI)

Express News Service

BENGALURU: In the end, the compromise ended up not being a compromise at all. After weeks of a standoff between the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the Indian Super League (ISL) and clubs, the final Indian squad to participate in the Asian Games was announced on Wednesday.

The revised squad is a far cry from the one that was originally announced on August 1. For starters, the squad is paper-thin, down to only 17 members from the original 22. A couple of injuries and India will be left with four players on the bench in Hangzhou. From the list of three senior players originally announced to accompany the U23 contingent, only Sunil Chhetri remains. It was always expected that Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sandesh Jhingan would not be released by their respective clubs, Bengaluru FC and FC Goa. In the end, both are missing and no other senior player has been called up in their stead.

This is not even India’s strongest U23 side either for a host of youngsters, who are vital for their club sides, are missing. In the midfield, not one of Bengaluru FC’s Suresh Singh Wangjam, Kerala Blasters’ Jeakson Singh or Mumbai City FC’s Apuia are present. These are all U23 midfielders with senior national team camps under their belt, and would have been Igor Stimac’s first-choice midfield in Hangzhou. Also missing is Mohun Bagan’s Anwar Ali — arguably the best defender in the country at the moment and still only 23 — East Bengal’s Naorem Mahesh Singh, Bengaluru’s Sivasakthi Narayanan and Mumbai City’s Akash Mishra.

Of the 22 players that Stimac would have preferred to take to the Asiad, only nine are present in the revised squad.

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It is evident that clubs have stuck to their respective stands while the AIFF had to backtrack. Mumbai City FC, for example, have two AFC Champions League Games in this period and sources from the club had always indicated that it would be difficult to release important players. In the end, all Mumbai City players from the original squad — Apuia, Akash and forward Vikram Pratap Singh — were withdrawn and one — Gurkirat Singh — added. BFC had six players in the original squad, which has been whittled down to two. Only nine ISL clubs have representatives — there is nobody from East Bengal, Jamshedpur or NorthEast United.  

AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey may have tried his best to sound upbeat in the statement announcing the squad, but he will now have some explaining to do with the sports ministry and the Sports Authority of India (SAI). India’s place in the Asian Games contingent was won after the ministry granted them an exemption to the rule that only top-eight sides in the continent would be sent to the Games. This exemption was granted after assurances that the strongest side possible would be sent. Instead, what is now being sent is effectively India’s U23 B side along with Sunil Chhetri.

There is talk of Stimac, the loudest voice in the chorus to send a team to the Asiad, not even accompanying this side to China. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he chose not to — why would he risk squandering the goodwill he has earned with the fans after some impressive results with the senior team?

Everything has gone wrong for the AIFF since the day they announced a team was going to the Asiad. Now the only things that can salvage this are a couple of miracles on the pitch in Hangzhou.

The Indian Squad: Gurmeet Singh, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, Sumit Rathi, Narender Gahlot, Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Samuel James, Rahul KP, Abdul Rabeeh Anjukandan, Ayush Dev Chhetri, Bryce Miranda, Azfar Noorani, Rahim Ali, Vincy Bareto, Sunil Chhetri, Rohit Danu, Gurkirat Singh, Aniket Jadhav.

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