Asian Games: Don’t expect miracles from Chhetri’s rag tag team

Sandesh Jhingan has also come in as the Blue Tigers open their campaign in barely four days, amid confusion over the squad

The Indian men’s football team is scheduled to take part in the Asian Games after nine years (Photo: AIFF)
The Indian men’s football team is scheduled to take part in the Asian Games after nine years (Photo: AIFF)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Come 19 September, and India are scheduled to take on hosts China in their opening group league game in the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou. With a ragtag team which will ride piggyback on captain Sunil Chhetri and star defender Sandesh Jhingan who was added on at the last minute, no preparatory camp, and confusion over the squad until the eleventh hour, though head coach Igor Stimac will accompany the squad.

If the Indian football fan, buoyed by the Blue Tigers’ string of recent successes, was thinking that the continental games were an ideal opportunity to build on the positive vibes, then it’s time to think again. Mind you, even Chhetri is not very hopeful as he said in an interview to the Times of India on Thursday: ‘’If this is the final team, it will be difficult.’’ 

The AIFF (All India Football Federation) was in major damage control mode all of Friday, so typical of the great Indian jugaad, working out a late release for Jhingan from Goa FC. The federation had named the senior trio of Chhetri, Jhingan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in its provisional list released on 1 August, names which still figure in the Union sports ministry’s jumbo list of the 650-plus Indian contingent released on Thursday, 13 September.   

It’s an understatement to say that the preparation has been far from ideal. If the Indian team managed to win back-to-back at the Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship a few months back, a lot of credit should be attributed to a three-week training camp the AIFF squeezed in at Bengaluru.      

Is it then a case of two steps forward, one step back for Indian football? Yes, given the fact that the men’s football team is scheduled to take part in the Asian Games after nine years, and ought to have put their best foot forward. The 18-member squad with under-23 rookies and Chhetri and Jhingan as the two senior players is a compromised one with the Indian Super League (ISL) clubs refusing to heed the request of AIFF to release two players each. 

Speaking to the National Herald in late August, AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey had said: ‘’At the end of the day, the clubs that employ the players are as much a stakeholders in Indian football as the national federation and all of us eventually have the well being of Indian football at heart. I believe there is nothing that a dialogue can’t solve — but both parties should be willing to give some leeway.’’ 

Chaubey’s earlier request to the Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a subsidiary of Reliance Group and owners of ISL, to postpone the start of the league by 10 days had also gone unheeded. However, sources in the AIFF confirmed that the early ISL fixtures may now be tweaked to accommodate the release of Chhetri and Jhingan. 

What has compounded matters is that while Asian Games regulations mandate an U-23 squad with only three slots for senior players, the current U-23 Indian squad has been occupied with national duty at the Asian Cup qualifiers. The standing of Asian Games not falling under the FIFA window (which would have made it binding for the clubs to release players) has strengthened the case for the clubs. 

Did the AIFF then jump the gun to lobby for the team’s inclusion in the Asian Games in view of a choc-a-bloc international calendar? Sources in the ISL, as well as some of the clubs, said the calendar for 2023-24 was decided with due diligence and the agreement of all parties. The Asian Games, of course, was nowhere on the horizon then. 

For all the positive intent that the AIFF may have shown, a string of poor results in China will deal a body blow to the positive vibes created around the game in recent months. Under the circumstances, one can only hope for the best! 

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines

Published: 15 Sep 2023, 8:29 PM