Asian Cup: Can India bank on crowd support to script an underdog story?

Australia, their rivals in Saturday’s opener, played the Qatar World Cup and are ranked No. 25

India's national football team, the Blue Tigers—pictured here at practice—face a challenging start against Australia in the AFC Asian Cup 2023 starting 13 January 2023 (photo: AIFF)
India's national football team, the Blue Tigers—pictured here at practice—face a challenging start against Australia in the AFC Asian Cup 2023 starting 13 January 2023 (photo: AIFF)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The current air of optimism around Indian football will be put to its sternest test when the Blue Tigers open their campaign against the Socceroos in their opening match in the AFC Asian Cup 2023, Doha, on Saturday, 13 January.

It’s a far tougher group that they find themselves in than the occupied in the 2019 edition, but Sunil Chhetri & Co promise to give their all on the pitch to prove that the recent hype about them is not misplaced altogether. 

The last time India faced Australia in this tournament was, incidentally, also in Doha—in 2011, when Tim Cahill and his men ran roughshod over India 4–1. It’s a bit of a mis-match really when one takes into account that the current bunch of Australians made the second round of the FIFA World Cup just a year back and are ranked 25th, against India’s current ranking of 102.  

The next two opponents for India will be Uzbekistan (18 January) and Syria (23 January), both also ranked higher than India at 68 and 91, respectively.

The Blue Tigers' task, then, is cut out. The only way they can hope to move to the second round is with full points against Syria and possibly a draw against Uzbekistan — and then to keep an eye on other results, to see if they can squeeze through as the second team from Group B.    

A classic underdog story is what head coach Igor Stimac will be hoping for from his boys, as will the thousands of expat Indian fans who are expected to throng the venue on India’s match days.

‘’The India matches are already a sellout and hence, they are assured of crowd support on all three days," said D. Ravi Kumar, a senior football writer and editor based in Qatar for nearly three decades. "There was an unprecedented gathering of thousands of fans at the arrival gate at the airport when the team landed about a week back. However, it will be a tough ask for them, as a heavy loss in the first game can be quite shattering. But let’s hope the team can put their best foot forward.’’  

Stimac, meanwhile, was quite excited about the key role that fans can play. “We love them! We know how much they expect from us and we will do our very best to make them happy here in Doha," the Croat told the AIFF media team. "Hopefully, we can give them some happy moments.”  

Arriving in Doha on the back of a creditable 1–0 win against Kuwait in the first of their 2026 World Cup qualifiers, the Indian squad quickly settled down to some quality preparation time.

It’s quite the work ethic that the current lot displayed during their journey to qualify for the second Asian Cup final in a row and over the last two years in general. Meanwhile, Stimac got the national federation’s buy-in to rope in the services of former England World Cupper Trevor Sinclair as assistant coach — the later being an expert in training for set-piece movements. 

The intent is clear: it’s largely through such set-piece movements that India will have to look for breakthroughs against powerful opposition.   

There are only two survivors from the 2011 squad which took on Australia — Chhetri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

Reflecting on the difference between two campaigns, Chhetri said that a major change has been the amount of knowledge on the opposition available this time: “We didn’t have much knowledge of the Australia back in 2011. Not when compared to the minute details we have now. We’ve watched their friendlies against Palestine (defeated 1–0) and Bahrain (2–0), so we know about the challenges ahead." 

As for Gurpreet, now 31, he is relishing the prospect of playing one of the top sides in Asia: “It’s not an easy group to be in but it’s where we should aim to be. Only when you face challenges and discomforts, do you know where you stand."

"Australia are a World Cup side, and Uzbekistan and Syria have also done quite well. But we should not think too low of ourselves," he said. "We’re also here on merit, and we will do our best to make the most of it.” 

At the end of the day, self-confidence could make all the difference for everyone.

“You need to believe in the work you do, believe in your group, and then the sky’s the limit for this batch. We must stay humble, keep improving and hopefully do something special,” said Sandesh Jhingan, the leader of the defence. 

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