After missing out on the Asian Games in 2018, the Indian football teams will make a return to the continental event this year, but the build-up to the Games hasn’t been short of drama.
Initially, the sports ministry had blocked the entries of both the men’s and women’s teams, citing their ranking being outside of the top 8 in Asia, but pleas from AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey didn’t go unanswered, and they finally got the ministry’s approval to travel for the competition.
The men are in a four-team group alongside hosts China, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The top two in the group, and the four best third-placed teams out of the six groups will qualify for the Round of 16. The men’s competition is also an under-23 one, with only three players outside the age limit allowed in the squad.
The women are in a three-team group alongside Chinese Taipei and Thailand. They will have to either finish top of the group, or among the three best second-placed teams out of five to qualify for the quarterfinals. Unlike the men’s competition, there are no age restrictions for the women, with India sending a first-choice senior squad to Hangzhou this year.
What are India’s chances?
After week of tumultuous back-and-forth, there is finally a squad. It is vastly different to the one that was originally named last month, but at least there is a semblance of balance to it, after last-minute agreements for Sandesh Jhingan to travel, and for Chinglensana Singh and Lalchungnunga to be added to the squad. China’s U23 side beat India 2-1 in a dramatic clash at Dalian earlier this month in the AFC U23 qualifiers, but the Indian side now is significantly different to the one that played in that game.
Captain Sunil Chhetri, Jhingan and Chinglensana will be the three overaged players allowed in the squad. With some exciting wingers like Rahul KP and Rohit Danu in the squad, in addition to the likes of Aniket Jadhav and Gurkirat Singh, India are well-served going forward, while Jhingan and Chinglensana add steel to the defence. However, the midfield is an area of concern, with both a lack of experience and significant game-time at the highest level for any of the players called up.
But despite the issues and travails the team has faced heading into the Asian Games, India will fancy their chances against both Bangladesh and Myanmar — wins in both those games and they will be assured of at least a spot in the Round of 16, which should be the minimum aim for Igor Stimac, who is traveling to Hangzhou alongside U23 coach Clifford Miranda.
If India do finish second in the group, as they are odds on to pre-tournament, they will face a tough test in the Round of 16, against the runners of Group B, which includes, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Mongolia.
Ahead of his trip to China, Stimac held a press-conference underlining how tough the situation for India is:
On the situation the team finds itself in and morale…
“Time is short. We need to focus on what can be done in the next two days until kickoff – to do everything possible within our power, to open the tournament with a good fight – because I cannot expect more in such a situation.”
“What morale and which camp? The players are coming at 5-6pm today at the airport. We meet there and then have a 10pm flight to Honk Kong. We will reach HK at 7am tomorrow morning, then wait 5-6 hours there for another flight to Guangzhou. [We] will reach afternoon just around 5pm – no single training session prior to game. What we need to do is make sure that what needs to be discussed with the players is done at the airport and during the flights so they can rest when we get there [to China].
“Having two days preparation prior to big games never served us well…It’s obvious how India is different when there is long camp versus a short camp.”
“I don’t have any reason whatsoever to request results from the players – the reasons are well known. I’m going to ask the players to perform to the best of their abilities and I will try to help them in achieving that.”
On the new players in the squad…
“Many of them I will meet for the first time – I need to find out certain things which will help me make up my mind about how much they can be involved, how much they understand the game.”
“They have a great opportunity… Proving that they deserve better opportunities in ISL… and to turn the [spotlight] onto themselves.”
“Generally there is no huge difference in quality within Indian players… If certain elements will stop us going with the best possible team, then I would rather pick all I-League players, and request to train with them for two months and prepare for the Asian Games.”
On the opposition and his setup…
“I’m not thinking about China to be honest. I’m thinking about Bangladesh and Myanmar. So do not be surprised if I leave Sandesh and Sunil out for the first game.”
“We need to be very clever – do we invest all our energy (not much of it will be left after the first game) or we just skip over that and prepare the best of what we have for the following two games which might take us to the eliminatory rounds?”
On Sunil Chhetri…
“Sunil missed a whole pre-season with the team. And he’s been involved in the training sessions for just the last couple of weeks. So I will not put our whole country into the danger of losing Sunil Chetri ahead of World Cup qualifiers.”
India’s group stage opponents are both ranked higher than them, with Chinese Taipei at 38 and Thailand at 46, compared to India’s ranking of 61. However, with the likes of Manisha Kalyan and Jyoti Chauhan, both of whom have had impressive stints in Europe, in the squad, India will still fancy their chances, even though they go into the group as rank underdogs.
The team has a settled look to it, but recent results have been far from impressive. India lost last year’s SAFF Championship semifinal to Nepal after losing to Bangladesh in the group stage, and only have two wins this year, both against Kyrgyzstan in the first round of the Olympic qualifiers.
Thomas Dennerby was appointed as the team’s head coach again, and this will be a difficult assignment for the Swede to come back to.
India are rank underdogs in terms of their chances of getting out of the group, but the format is such that one positive result could catapult them into the quarterfinals. Getting that upset result done will be a huge fillip for the team in this tournament, and ahead of the second round of Olympic qualifiers to be held next month.
September 19, 5pm: India v China.
September 21, 1:30pm: India v Bangladesh.
September 24, 5pm: India v Myanmar.
The Round of 16 fixtures will be played on September 27 or 28, with the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals on October 1, 4 and 7 respectively.
September 21, 5pm: India v Chinese Taipei.
September 24, 5pm: India v Thailand.
The quarterfinals, semifinals and finals will be played on September 30, October 3 and October 6.