Are the ‘sleeping giants’ finally waking up?

India is a sleeping giant in football,” FIFA’s then Director of Marketing Division, Thierry Weil, had said in 2016. Since then, India has only been piling up victories and moving up in FIFA rankings

Picture courtesy: AIFF media
Picture courtesy: AIFF media

Vikrant Jha

India is a sleeping giant in football,” FIFA’s then Director of Marketing Division, Thierry Weil, had said in 2016. Since then, India has only been piling up victories and moving up in the coveted FIFA rankings.

Sure, the rise is not so hopeful that India is ‘definitely’ going to play the next World Cup in 2022. In fact, the statement, if made, would sound absurd and foolish. But can the same be said about the 2026 World Cup with complete conviction? Because, if there ever was a little chance and an iota of hope, it is now. They have not as yet started playing the game effortlessly, the style quotient is missing too, but to their credit is their evident and apparent zeal to overcome any opposition, their motivation to rise up to the occasion and to give it their best shot, regardless of the result.

Moreover, FIFA has decided to change the structure of one of the most coveted sports events, the FIFA World Cup from 2026. The tournament, which is currently a 32-team event and will be so when teams face-off in Qatar in 2022, will have 48 slots up for grab to play the World Cup 2026 onwards. The increase not only means greater chance for teams from all of FIFA’s confederations, it also means, as the new format proposes, eight direct slots for countries from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Although the qualification process from the Asian confederation for 2026 remains unknown as yet, out of 46 teams in AFC, India is currently ranked 15 and their performance has only been getting better. Even if the rankings have nothing to do with the qualification process, moving five slots ahead of where they were in 2017 does imply that the team is heading in the right direction.

In fact, since 2015, when they had slipped to 173 in the FIFA rankings, India has marched into the top hundred in the past three years, currently standing at 97 on the back of some impressive performances

They have also outplayed some of the teams way ahead of them in the rankings, even if by a margin of 1-0. And when they have faced a weaker opposition, the margin of victory has rarely been meagre, with the scoreboard reading 6-1, 5-0, 4-1, 4-0 on a few occasions. Courtesy their performances, India did not only manage to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup to be held in UAE in 2019, they also qualified as group toppers ahead of Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Macau.

Before 2015, barring some good performances here and there, India looked sure to lose the match and much to the dismay of the fans, the team somewhere lacked competitiveness. There have been a few greats to don the blue jersey in the past as well, the likes of Baichung Bhutia and IM Vijayan to name a couple, but the support they needed, or even they deserved, was missing. Today, time seems to have changed.

While Sunil Chhetri is always threatening the opposition in the front half, of a probable goal with their first mistake, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu looks rock solid saving the goal. The defence, although not invincible, can ably support the goalkeeper, while the midfield has done enough, if not more, to land the ball at Chhetri’s feet or provide Jeje Lalpekhlua with a formidable assist. The team is not perfect. It is nowhere close to it. But it undoubtedly has the capability, it is no noob either.

And, with due credit to the Indian Super League, the bench strength is not terrible either. For comparison, young Amrinder Singh has already broken into the national squad, although Sandhu—known as one of the best country has ever produced—remains the first choice as of now. Singh is not alone in the race either, he is being closely followed in by Vishal Kaith, who had the most number of saves to his name in the previous season of ISL. Similar stories can be narrated for the forwards, defenders and mid-fielders. The U-17 team that represented India for the first time in any World Cup event at home last year, the bunch of young guys by 2026 will be men and their experience and exposure only adds cherry to the cake.

The difference in the performance of the Indian team can be clearly seen from a quick glance at the facts. While in 2014, playing two matches, all India could do was draw a fixture while losing the other, in 2015, India won and lost five matches each, drawing the rest two which they played. The beginning of, what can be termed as, the golden phase in the longest time only began in 2016. It was in 2016 when India toppled its oppositions to seal a place at the AFC Asian Cup, the biggest tournament in Asia, obviously after the World Cup. In the six matches India played in 2016-17, the ‘Blue Pilgrims’ emerged victorious on four counts, losing the rest two. In the season that followed, India lost only two games out of the nine they played, winning the rest of the seven encounters.

The confidence of the team can be gauged by its captain literally begging the public to “come, watch us” after thrashing Chinese Taipei 5-0 in the four-nation Intercontinental Cup. “Abuse us, insult us...but come and watch us play,” the Indian skipper said with folded hands. The statement had a hidden message somewhere: Come, watch us play and we will not let you down.

Don’t fault him for being over-optimistic. In fact, in July last year in an exclusive interview with National Herald, he had accepted that “the World Cup is too far right now”. “We have to think more about Asia. If we can do well in Asia, then only can we do well on the world stage”, he had said.

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