India, often called the ‘sleeping giant’ of football, will face a tough challenge to make an impact at the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in Qatar. The Blue Tigers have been drawn in Group A with Australia, Oman and Vietnam, and will need to finish in the top two or be among the four best third-placed teams to advance to the knockout stage.
India have qualified for the Asian Cup five times, but have only reached the quarter-finals once, in 1964, when they finished as runners-up to hosts Israel. Since then, India have failed to progress beyond the group stage, losing nine out of their 12 matches and scoring only six goals.
India’s last appearance at the Asian Cup was in 2019, when they stunned Thailand 4-1 in their opening match, but lost to hosts UAE and Bahrain to finish fourth in their group. India’s star striker and captain Sunil Chhetri scored two goals in that tournament, taking his tally to three in the Asian Cup and 74 in his international career.
India’s road to qualification and current form
India secured their spot at the Asian Cup 2023 by finishing third in their joint qualifying group for the FIFA World Cup 2022 and the Asian Cup 2023. India finished behind Qatar and Oman, and ahead of Afghanistan and Bangladesh, with one win, seven draws and two losses.
India’s only win in the qualifying campaign came against Bangladesh, when Chhetri scored a brace to give his team a 2-0 victory in June 2021. India also held Asian champions Qatar to a goalless draw in Doha, but suffered a 6-0 defeat to UAE in a friendly match in March 2021.
India are currently ranked 105th in the FIFA world rankings, and 19th in Asia. India have not played any international matches since June 2021, and will resume their preparations for the Asian Cup with a friendly match against Nepal in September 2021.
India’s coach and key players
India are coached by Croatian Igor Stimac, who took charge of the team in May 2019. Stimac, who was part of Croatia’s bronze-medal winning team at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, has a contract until September 2021, and has expressed his desire to continue until the Asian Cup 2023.
Stimac has tried to implement a possession-based and attacking style of play, and has given opportunities to many young and promising players. Some of the players who have impressed under Stimac are goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, defender Sandesh Jhingan, midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad and forward Manvir Singh.
However, the most important player for India remains Chhetri, who is the second-highest active international goalscorer in the world, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo. Chhetri, who will turn 39 in August 2023, has said that he wants to play at the Asian Cup 2023, and hopes to inspire his team to achieve something special.
India’s opponents and expectations at the Asian Cup 2023
India will face a tough task to qualify from their group, as they will face Australia, Oman and Vietnam, who are all ranked higher than them in Asia. Australia are the 2015 Asian Cup champions, and have qualified for the last five FIFA World Cups. Oman are the reigning Gulf Cup champions, and have beaten India twice in the qualifying campaign. Vietnam are the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup champions, and have reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup 2019.
India have never beaten Australia or Oman in official matches, and have only played Vietnam once, in 1999, when they lost 3-1. India will need to improve their defensive solidity, scoring efficiency and consistency to have a chance of upsetting their opponents and making history at the Asian Cup 2023.
India’s coach Stimac has said that he is not afraid of any team, and that he believes in his players’ potential. He has also said that he wants to make India proud, and that he hopes to awaken the sleeping giant of football.