India upbeat after draw of FIFA 2026 qualifiers, Asian Games

“Let’s do everything to make sure that the team gets enough time to prepare,” says head coach Igor Stimac

SAFF champions Indian national football team (Photo: AIFF)
SAFF champions Indian national football team (Photo: AIFF)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

It was an afternoon of hope as the draw ceremony of the 2026 Fifa World Cup Asian zone qualification, along with that of the upcoming Asian Games in Hangzhou, were conducted at the Asian Football Confederation headquarters in Malaysia on Thursday.

The Blue Tigers, who ensured that they would be in Pot 2 of the draw after a series of good results over last two months by winning the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship, reaped the benefits of it in the ceremony. Now 99 in the FIFA rankings, they have drawn only one team ranked above them — Qatar (59), the current Asian Cup champions who played in World Cup 2022 as hosts.

The third team in the group is Kuwait (137), the Gulf country, which Sunil Chettri & Co have beaten twice in recent times. The fourth team in the group will be the winners between Afghanistan (157) and Mongolia (183), who will slug it out in a two-leg, first round game. India’s fight for a spot in Pot 2 was with Lebanon, whom they played against in the last two competitions and defeated them on both occasions.

The AFC second round of qualifiers will involve 36 teams, divided into nine groups of four each. They play in a home-and-away round robin format with the top two teams making it to the third round of qualification and qualify for the 2027 Asian Cup. Considering the recent results against Kuwait and the Gulf in rankings between India and Afghanistan & Mongolia, there is a realistic hope of India finishing second in the group and progressing further.

Out of the 36, 26 teams have received byes to this round, and the rest 10 will be the winner from the first round. The first round matches are yet to take place.

“It was a very busy and exciting day of football for us in India. Now that we know all the opponents, we can clearly say that we were successful against all these teams in the recent past,’’ remarked Igor Stimac, the head coach of Indian team after the draw.

“I felt we were not lucky there and all these teams (in Group A), we’ve faced in recent times. We faced Qatar a long time ago and have shown that even then we were successful against them,” he said, adding, “I beg everyone in India, all the stakeholders, let’s start our meetings and planning, let’s do everything to make sure that the Indian football team get enough time to prepare so we can match these teams, outplay them on the pitch, and go through as the winners in the group.”

FIFA 2026 Asian Qualifiers, 2nd round) Group A: Qatar, India, Kuwait, WP1 (Afghanistan/Mongolia).

Meanwhile in the football tournament of the 19th Asian Games, to be conducted at Hangzhou, China from September 18 to October 7, the Indian men’s team are placed alongside hosts China PR (Fifa ranking 80), Bangladesh (192) and Myanmar (160) in Group A.

The tournament has an age limit of Under-23 with three exceptions and it is extremely likely that the trio will comprise of Chhetri, defender Sandesh Jhingan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. If India can hold the hosts in front of what can be a raucous crowd, a tough ask and earn full points against the other two, they stand a chance of advancing as group toppers.

There are 23 teams divided into six groups, where Group A, B, C, E and F has four teams each while Group D has three teams.

In the women’s event, the Blue Tigresses are drawn with Chinese Taipei and Thailand in Group B.

Incidentally, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) had earlier decided not to send the team based on the sports ministry’s guideline of the cut-off in rankings in Asia — a decision that was appealed against by both the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and Stimac. The ministry’s exemption eventually came on Tuesday evening.

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Published: 27 Jul 2023, 7:08 PM