Dodgy goal aside, Indian football needs to look within, and to the future

Team India vs Qatar
Team India vs Qatar (PC: AIFF)

RevSportz Comment

There was so much that was problematic about India’s World Cup qualifier in Qatar that it’s hard to know where to start. In an age when someone stuck in the Arabian desert could, in theory, send their coordinates correct to a few metres to rescuers, it defied belief that a World Cup football game was played without the basic technology that told match officials whether the ball had crossed the line or not. South Korea’s Kim Woo-sung is a convenient villain, but the first thing a referee does is look up at his linesman. And if there’s no flag forthcoming, he will not overrule the decision unless he himself has conclusively seen that his colleague made a mistake.

What happened in the 73rd minute at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium didn’t even need high-tech. Back in January 2019, Manchester City’s John Stones made a goal-line clearance from Liverpool’s Sadio Mane that would eventually decide the destiny of the Premier League title. On that occasion, ‘goal’ would have been the first response of anyone watching. To the naked eye, the ball was over the line. It needed the most sophisticated Hawkeye technology to tell millions that 11mm of the ball’s diameter hadn’t crossed.

On Tuesday night, even 1970s-style blurry images would have been enough. The ball didn’t just cross the goalline from Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s fumble, it went on a little picnic afterwards. It was blatantly obvious from the players’ reactions as well. The Indians momentarily switched off, prior to resetting for what they assumed would be a corner. The Qataris looked positively sheepish when the goal was given.

But as galling as the incident was, and as much as it will be debated for days, Indian football will not progress if an entire, flawed, qualifying campaign is reduced to one avoidable error.

India’s World Cup dreams weren’t extinguished on June 11. The real damage was done in late March, when they surrendered a lead to lose 1-2 to Afghanistan in Guwahati. Coming five days after a 0-0 draw in Saudi Arabia, where Afghanistan play their home matches, it meant that India took just a point off the lowest-ranked team in the group.

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Left: The controversial goal of Qatar. Right: Lallianzuala Chhangte who scored the opener for India. Source: AIFF

Let’s also not forget that we’re talking of phantom goals today only because Qatar couldn’t be bothered to field their strongest players against India. The two-time defending champions of Asia didn’t even have Akram Afif, Almoez Ali and Hassan Al-Haydos anywhere near the bench. Had Igor Stimac’s team prevailed and gone through to round three, Kuwait, in particular, could have raised serious questions about sporting integrity.

They lost home and away to a full-strength Qatari side, as did Afghanistan, who were thumped 8-1 in Doha last November. When the Afghans picked up a point against Qatar last week, it was against an assortment of Under-23s similar to the group that India faced. These are World Cup qualifiers, and FIFA needs to insist that they be respected, and not treated as some friendly before the summer vacation.

India can take heart, however, from how they finished the campaign. With Sunil Chhetri’s goals now a fond memory, and Sandesh Jhingan out injured for the last four matches in the group, there have been enough glimpses of the future. Lallianzuala Chhangte and Rahim Ali weren’t always on the same wavelength, but put in a solid shift in a game India had to win. Sahal Abdul Samad showed glimpses of the player most Indian fans have always hoped he could be. Jay Gupta is very raw, but those rampaging runs down the left might be needed in the coming years. And Mehtab Singh was just immense, getting in the way of pretty much everything a young Qatari side threw at India.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) honchos need to sit with the young core, and see if they believe Igor Stimac is the man to lift them out of this endless swamp of mediocrity. If, as the Croatian coach suggested in a post-match interaction with RevSportz, the boys are behind their off-field mentor, then a team needs to be built around the experience of Gurpreet and Jhingan, when he returns. India has no Jude Bellingham or Phil Foden, but the likes of Chhangte, Apuia, Rahim and Vikram Partap Singh have high ceilings if they can be guided properly.

By all means, gnash your teeth and rant now. But in the cold light of day, look ahead, to a time where Indian football doesn’t have to depend on a linesman keeping his eyes open. That will be the day the ghost of Al Rayyan is laid to rest.

Also Read: ‘Could well be the last time we’re meeting’: Igor Stimac to shattered India players