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Indian football team faces crucial nine months in a bid for greatness

Fresh off its tournament win at the Intercontinental Cup, India begin the SAFF Championships today in a bid to gain peak form and continue its upward curve

The Indian team celebrates winning the Intercontinental Cup.
The Indian team celebrates winning the Intercontinental Cup. (ANI)

“The best 45 minutes from India in the last five decades.” This is how the national football coach Igor Stimac described India’s second half performance at the 2023 Intercontinental Cup final against Lebanon on Sunday. As far as bold claims go, Stimac may have found his Mount Everest. Maybe it was the recency bias or a coach getting carried away with his team’s performance. But while it is debatable if India indeed played the best 45 minutes of football in the last 50 years, Stimac’s team certainly brought the energy and entertainment in the second half to beat Lebanon 2-0 and regain the title.

The triumph will see India break back into the top-100, and replace Lebanon at No 99 when the new FIFA rankings are released. Since the start of 2022, India have been unbeaten and have kept clean sheets in eight out of the nine matches they played. Given the quality of the opposition—India mainly played teams on par or ranked lower—none of these are big gains in itself, but they are encouraging steps for a country that has struggled to get a foothold in the global sport. The riches from the Indian Super League (ISL), established in 2014, haven’t quite translated to success on the international level for the ‘Blue Tigers’, whose highest FIFA ranking of 94 was achieved back in 1996. 

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“I know we can do better,” Stimac, who has been in charge of the Indian men’s team since 2019, said on Sunday. “As a coach, I cannot show satisfaction. It’s still a long way to go. We are using each second of time on certain improvements.”

The four-nation tournament was the start of a busy schedule for Indian football that will culminate next year, over the months of January and February, at the AFC Asian Cup, the most prestigious continental event. Even before they have time to unpack the experience from the Intercontinental Cup, India will be at Bengaluru for the SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championships, which begins today. 

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India, the most successful team with eight titles, will take on Pakistan on the opening day. Though the Indo-Pak football rivalry hasn’t quite reached the intensity of cricket or hockey, it is bound to generate interest, especially outside the circle of hardcore Indian football fans. Apart from the countries from SAFF, West Asian countries Kuwait and Lebanon have also been invited for the SAFF Cup.

“The inclusion of Lebanon and Kuwait (in the SAFF Championship) is a welcome addition,” captain Sunil Chhetri told reporters in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha last week. “Lebanon and Kuwait are much similar to Syria, which we’ll be playing in the Asian Cup. So, that will give us a better understanding. We are likely to play UAE (in the King’s Cup in Thailand in September) next and their level will be like Uzbekistan (the other opponent in Asian Cup). We definitely want to win SAFF, but the tougher opponents we get the better it is for us. Everyone in the team is also going to like it as we don’t get to play for the national team very often.”

The lack of matches has been one of the biggest grievances for Stimac as well.

“Only in June, we’re getting to play nine games. And in the past 12 months we played just eight,” he said prior to the Intercontinental Cup. “We have many tournaments to play, the Intercontinental Cup, the SAFF Cup… then there’s the King’s Cup in September, followed by the Merdika Cup (in Malaysia) in October. And in November we start with the World Cup qualifiers. It’s a huge achievement (to get these many matches).”

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Launched in 2018 by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in place of the Nehru Cup, the Intercontinental Cup is a four-nation tournament that pits countries from different confederations against each other. In 2023, the third edition of the event, India, ranked 101, took on Mongolia (183), Vanuatu (164) and Lebanon (99). Played in the draining heat of Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, where the temperatures soared over 40 degrees Celsius, it was the kind of tournament where India had a lot more to lose than gain. While India defeated Mongolia and Vanuatu in the first two matches, they played out a goalless draw against Lebanon despite creating multiple chances.

In the first half of the final, India once again lacked sharpness in the final third. But, as Chhetri later revealed, a tongue-lashing from the coach at half-time shook the Indian team into action in the second half. India broke the 0-0 deadlock right after the restart with a move designed to please football connoisseurs. In the 46th minute, Lallianzuala Chhangte buzzed in from the right wing and played a one-two with Nikhil Poojary. Chhangte took Poojary’s back-heeled return ball, did a step-over and rolled an inch-perfect square pass to Chhetri, who slotted the ball home. 

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India’s forward line once again combined well for the second goal; this time Chhangte was at the sharp end of the attack as he scored off a rebound. The Mumbai City FC winger, who was the Indian Super League 2022-23 player of the tournament, with his pace and flair, is one of the players moulding the identity of this team. His return to form in an India jersey—Chhangte had last scored for India in 2019—was one of the biggest positives for the team.

Over the past few years, the Indian team has looked overly dependent on their talismanic captain for key breakthroughs. At 38, Chhetri remains fit and motivated, and, along with Chhangte, was again the joint top-scorer in the tournament with two goals each. But, as with Bengaluru FC in the ISL, Chhetri will have to be used sparingly and judiciously by the coach. Even in the four-nation tournament, Chhetri was brought on as an 81st minute substitute in the group match against Lebanon.

Though India won the title and maintained clean sheets in the four matches they played, the team is far from a settled unit. The coach made nine changes for the second match against Vanuatu, and 10 for the group match against Lebanon. Important members of his core group, like Chinglensana Singh, Brandon Fernandes and Manvir Singh were missing due to various reasons. 

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“You expect me to deliver good results,” Stimac said in the post-match press conference. “I accept that. But every time, in a big way, the team is different. Because some of the players are injured, some are out due to personal reasons, some are not released by their clubs. And I need to be patient and waiting and suffering through this process. Every time I need to introduce 5-6-7 new players and start working with them from scratch. That’s not easy, it’s not the proper process.”

While the coach is happy that India is getting some much-needed international football matches under their belt, he is unsure what it will all add up to. Especially when the bigger picture is the AFC Asian Cup, against teams that are much stronger, faster and smarter tactically.

“When you go out there and face Australia and Uzbekistan, you really need to be ready for everything,” he said. “The most important time for us is going to be December and the preparation for Asian Cup. All this prior to that, forget it. Are we going to have all the players we worked with here? Who knows who will survive until then?” The Asian Cup may be a bridge too far. But with the title win, the Indian team has at least got the ball rolling.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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