AFC Asian Cup 2023: Will football's 'sleeping giant' India wake up? | AFC Asian Cup

Mumbai, India – For decades, India has lived with the tag of being the “sleeping giant” of football.

With a population of 1.4 billion, the largest in the world, there is a prevailing feeling that India is underrepresented in international football.

Compared to its dominance in cricket, the country is far behind in football and has yet to qualify for a FIFA World Cup.

While former FIFA president Sepp Blatter optimistically declared in 2012 that “the sleeping giant is beginning to awaken,” the reality in 2024 paints a different picture.

India, currently ranked 102 in the FIFA rankings and not even among the top 10 teams in Asia, is still in the midst of its football awakening and struggling to emerge from its slumber, experts say.

“India is not a giant in football because it has not done anything on the international front for years,” Stephen Constantine, former coach of the Indian men's football team, told Al Jazeera.

Indian football enjoyed glory in the 1950s and 1960s, winning gold at the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games and achieving a commendable fourth place at the 1956 Summer Olympics.

However, since that illustrious period, India's performance on the continental stage has been lackluster, with the team failing to advance beyond the group stages of the Asian Cup in 1984, 2011 and 2019.

During their final campaign in 2019, the team raised fans' expectations with a 4-1 win over Thailand in the opening match, but losses against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain meant India missed out on qualifying for the next round once again.

Now, under coach Igor Stimac, India faces a difficult campaign in the Asian Cup, where the men in blue are grouped with teams ranked above them: Australia, Syria and Uzbekistan.

The team's fearless approach under Stimac has impressed fans, but the coach sparked controversy in November when he said: “I don't consider the Asian Cup to be such an important tournament.”

Constantine, who took charge of India in 2002-05 and 2015-19, was surprised by Stimac's comments.

“It is the most important tournament that India will play. What is more important than that? Constantine said.

'Limitation of damages against Australia'

India's 26-member squad for the Asian Cup is led by the country's top scorer Sunil Chhetri and includes the same core group of players that Stimac has worked with since taking over. All members of the team play for clubs in the Indian Super League (ISL), the country's top division.

Indian football coach Pradhyum Reddy hopes fans will have high hopes for Stimac's team in the Asian Cup, but says the road to results will not be easy.

India's first match of the campaign is against Australia, who reached the last 16 of the Qatar World Cup 2022 before being eliminated by eventual champions Argentina.

“Australia is an experienced rival who has their core group playing in Europe,” Reddy told Al Jazeera.

“But the difference is that under Stimac, India plays on the front foot, so the players will try to put pressure on Australia and make life difficult for them, maybe even cause them some problems, but I don't think we can get any joy out of it. of that game.

“It should be about limiting the damage against Australia. Don’t lose by more than what others lost,” Reddy added.

Former India player Darren Caldeira believes his country's best chance of picking up points will be against 91st-ranked Syria, as Uzbekistan (ranked 68th) could present tougher challenges.

“No one talks too much about Uzbekistan, but it is a rising power in Central Asia,” Caldeira told Al Jazeera. “They have some really good players, especially Abdukodir Khusanov,” she added, referring to the 19-year-old Uzbek defender who plays for Lens in France's Ligue 1.

(Al Jazeera)

The gulf gets bigger

In the run-up to the Asian Cup, India won three tournaments in 2023, including the SAFF Championship in July, which featured eight South Asian teams.

Apart from Kyrgyzstan, all the opponents India faced in the three tournaments are ranked below them. This highlights India's tendency to play against lower-ranked opposition, a long-standing concern in Indian football.

“We need to play more games against higher-ranked nations,” said former midfielder Caldeira, who is now director of football at top-tier Indian club Bengaluru FC.

“Maybe in the past there was apprehension about the result, but to improve we must take risks and challenge ourselves against quality opponents,” he added.

Reddy, chief executive of Indian third-division club Dempo, said the team's qualification for the Asian Cup and other achievements mask the problems affecting the sport at home.

“We have improved significantly in the last decade… But comparatively, I don't think we have improved as much as other regional teams including Uzbekistan, Thailand and Vietnam,” Reddy said.

“And certainly not as much as Japan or South Korea: the Gulf has gotten bigger.”

Japan is currently the highest-ranked Asian team, followed by Iran and South Korea in second and third place respectively, while Australia and Saudi Arabia are in the top five. India is ranked 18th on the list.

Former India coach Constantine attributed India's slow progress to lack of player development.

“When I came to India in 2002, I realized that there is talent but we were not looking for it in the right places. And when we did it, we weren't developing them. That is why India has not reached the heights we imagined,” said Constantine, the current Pakistan coach.

“At the moment, if we look at the big picture, we do not dominate the region. So if you are not dominating in the region, how do you expect to dominate elsewhere?”

INTERACTIVE – Previous AFC Asian Cup Winners-1704968769
(Al Jazeera)

The poor quality of coaching at various levels, the absence of a strong league and the lack of playing time for players have hampered the progress of domestic football.

Constantine, a UEFA Pro license holder and FIFA instructor, emphasized the impact of poor coaching on India's future and questioned the nation's dependence on foreign coaches who may not prioritize developing local talent.

“If we don't care about the development of Indian coaches, how are we going to develop our players?” Constantine asked. “We must focus on the development of Indian coaches at all levels and insist on quality, not quantity.”

Reddy, who has worked with several ISL clubs, advocates a nine-month league, aligned with international standards, as opposed to the current six-month ISL with 12 teams. He also highlighted the lack of playing time in the lower divisions of Indian football.

“In the I-League 2 [third tier] and youth leagues, it's comical how little football we play,” Reddy said. “If you compare it to kids in Japan, and how much they play in high school and college, it far exceeds what we're doing at the semi-professional level.”

Caldeira, who previously played in the ISL, said the league has helped the growth of Indian football by bringing professionalism that was previously missing.

“Before we had many good quality footballers, but now we have quality footballers as well as athletes,” he added. “I've played with a lot of good footballers who were technically pretty good, but physically they probably weren't that good.

“But now we are seeing footballers who can run for 90 minutes. And then, when they have the ball, they produce magic.”

Reddy, on the other hand, argued that the ISL has not made a significant change.

“If you were to calculate how much money has been invested in ISL, a lot of it has left Indian shores because that money has been paid to foreign coaches and players, it is money that is not in the Indian ecosystem,” Reddy explained.

“It would have been better if that money was injected into Indian football so that it would develop and leave a tangible asset.”

Describing India as “minnows”, Reddy said the only way the country can dream of playing in the World Cup is by performing consistently in major youth tournaments.

“We have never qualified for an AFC U-23 tournament or the U-17 and U-20 World Cups on merit,” Reddy said. “So until we reach that level, where we bring in teams that regularly play continental competitions and at all levels on merit, the rest is just hyperbole.”

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