Sunil Chhetri will likely play his final major international tournament for India. (File photo | AFP)
Sunil Chhetri will likely play his final major international tournament for India. (File photo | AFP)

Tough road ahead as India kick-start Asian Cup campaign against Australia

The Asian Cup comes both as a reality check and as a yardstick that can measure how far Indian football has come in the last decade.

BENGALURU: There was a time when Indian football fans would look on in disappointment when the best teams in Asia clashed in the continent’s top international competition. Those times are long gone — the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, which begins in Qatar on Friday, will be the Blue Tigers’ second straight appearance at the tournament.

The tournament comes at a time when Indian football is seemingly on one of its best runs in recent memory. Igor Stimac has a 50 percent win rate — quite a remarkable feat for a coach whose team played 16 matches in 2023 alone. India lost only three of those, one of which was defeat to the reigning Asian champions Qatar in 2026 World Cup qualifying.

The Asian Cup comes both as a reality check and as a yardstick that can measure how far Indian football has come in the last decade. While none of the opponents India has beaten over the last year can be counted as pushovers, their opponents in Qatar are on a different level. There is Australia, who made it to the knockout rounds of the World Cup not too long ago.

There is Uzbekistan, who recently held the likes of Iran and Mexico to draws. Then there is Syria, a team against which India has a favourable head-to-head record but is nevertheless a higher-ranked opponent. In 2019, India recorded their first Asian Cup victory — against Thailand — in over four decades. Emulating that this time will be the toughest of tasks.

India’s first match is against Australia on Saturday, the same opponent they faced in the first match of the 2011 Asian Cup. Then, the result was a heavy 4-0 defeat. An upset might be too much to ask but a respectable scoreline is certainly possible.

There is one survivor from that game in the current squad — the evergreen Sunil Chhetri, who will likely play his final major international tournament for India. “We didn’t have much knowledge of the Australians back in 2011,” said Chhetri “Not when compared to the minute details we have now. We’ve watched their friendlies against Palestine (1-0) and Bahrain (2-0), so we know about the challenges we are facing ahead.”

The last time, the Indian football team turned up at a major continental event, they were plagued by unpreparedness, fatigue and uncertainty. There is no repeat of the Asian Games horror show from the All India Football Federation’s part — the Blue Tigers arrived in Qatar nearly two weeks ago to acclimatise themselves to the conditions. It may be less than the month-long camp that coach Igor Stimac initially wanted, but he has made the best of what he has got. “We wanted to come out here early, settle down properly, and not waste time travelling later. We started our work together, planned our schedule with four sessions in two days, followed by rest on the third day,” said the Croatian.

Stimac certainly has had his problems in the build-up. The absence of Anwar Ali, perhaps India’s best player right now, is a major blow, especially considering India’s defence will have to be at their best against much better opponents. Jeakson Singh, who provided some much needed physicality in the middle is also absent. The squad is still heavily reliant on Chhetri for goals but he has not been at his best this season, scoring just thrice in the Indian Super League.

The one thing he has going for him will be that this edition of the tournament will likely be the closest thing to playing a home Asian Cup. The team was mobbed by expatriate fans at the airport on their arrival to Doha and will be heavily supported in the stands. The twelfth man will be in full force. Now all that is needed for the other eleven to be at their best.

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The New Indian Express
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