Asian Cup: Syria overpower India to enter round of 16

Their brief trip to Qatar ended with a 0-1 reverse to Syria in their final group game at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor on Tuesday, January 23, 2024
Syria's Mahmood Alaswad, center, fights for the ball against India's Akash Mishra, left, and India's Deepak Tangri during their Asian Cup match
Syria's Mahmood Alaswad, center, fights for the ball against India's Akash Mishra, left, and India's Deepak Tangri during their Asian Cup match(Photo | AP)

BENGALURU: And so it ended. The post-mortem does not paint a pretty picture for the Indian Football Team. Their record at the 2023 Asian Cup reads three played, zero won, zero scored and five shots on target in the entire tournament.

Their brief trip to Qatar ended with a 0-1 reverse to Syria in their final group game at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor on Tuesday. It was not as one-sided as India’s previous two games — they did manage 47 percent of the ball and made almost as many passes as their opponents. But Syria were clearly the better team and the gap between the two sides looked wider than their actual FIFA-rankings gap of 10-odd places.

India actually started the match better with a couple of chances. Naorem Mahesh Singh found himself one-on-one with the Syrian keeper Aiham Ousou but failed to get a shot away. Then Manvir Singh got the ball down the left with Sunil Chhetri waiting unmarked in the middle. But the Mohun Bagan player failed to find his captain.

Syria grew in strength once they settled into the match and the game began to primarily be played in the Indian half. The Blue Tigers suffered a blow right at the beginning of the second half when Sandesh Jhingan was taken off with an injury. With their primary central defender in the stands, India struggled to cope with the Syrian pressure. By the time, the 76th-minute winner by Omar Khribin came, the Qasioun Eagles had looked likely to score for some time. The result gives Syria a great shout of qualifying for the next round.

For India and coach Igor Stimac, it is now time to ponder what went wrong. Of course, a number of things went wrong even before the tournament started, with key players like Anwar Ali, Jeakson Singh and Sahal Abdul Samad all getting injured. The first two were not considered for the Asian Cup while Sahal was restricted to a brief cameo in Tuesday’s game.

Even then, not being able to score a single goal is not a good sign for the future of Indian football. For almost two decades, Chhetri carried that burden on his back and his incredible longevity delayed the inevitable for quite some time. But with the captain no longer having the same influence on the game, India are struggling for goals, especially against quality opposition.

Stimac will also be worried about his team’s passing and their ability to keep hold of the ball. Just as was the case against Australia and Uzbekistan, it was an Indian mistake that kick-started the chain of events that led to the goal. Multiple times throughout the tournament, India have defended well under pressure, only to give the ball away cheaply and find themselves under pressure again.

This, of course, is not something a coach can correct in a twenty-something-year old. Technically-sound footballers can only be produced by a proper grassroots setup that absorbs players at the right age and gives them the right guidance. This is something that is not there in Indian football right now, regardless of any claims to the contrary. It would not be a surprise if a decade-and-a-half later, this continues to be India’s Asian Cup story.

For now, after the usual brief period of complaining and shifting blame, Indian football will move on to the 2026 World Cup qualifiers. By then, the lessons from this tournament, if any were noted down at all, will be long forgotten. This is Indian football, after all!

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