Why Chhetri & Co deserve a chance to play in Asian Games

Should India send its men’s football team to the Asian Games? The question has started doing the rounds. Going by sports ministry rules, individuals or teams get the clearance if they are in the top-8 in continental rankings. Exceptions are made in special cases. There is another way, if the federation concerned sends its players on a ‘no cost to the government basis’.

As far as the football team goes, it has achieved success of late, against some ordinary teams and some good yet lower-ranked sides like Lebanon and Kuwait. After many years, India are back in the top-100 in FIFA rankings, albeit in the 100th place. And despite winning a Tri-nation event, Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship, ranking of the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games football champions in Asia is 18th.

So, the football team’s participation in the quadrennial multi-discipline gala to be held in Hangzhou in China from September 23 to October 8 is ruled out, according to the first condition of being in the top-8 in Asia. This means, Igor Stimac & Co’s chances hinge on the other two — a special exemption or at the cost of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), which paid for the team from 1998-2014. No team was sent in 2018.

Does the team led by Sunil Chhetri deserve an exemption? It’s a tough question considering India’s average performance against better-ranked sides. But the answer, this time, can be in the affirmative. The team has qualified for the Asian Cup to be held in Qatar in January-February. India have been grouped with Australia (world ranking 27), Uzbekistan (74) and Syria (94).

Also Read: Asian Games Participation: Doors Not Closed On Indian Football

This is not that bad a draw, where the other three have higher rankings, but the gap between India and two of them is not huge. Going by the way Indians have lasted 120 minutes in recent matches and even attacked in the dying moments, an improvement in fitness and stamina is evident. India have also blooded some youngsters, who have been impressive.

There is reason to be optimistic also because Asian Games rules state that a team must consist of under-23 players, with three senior players at a time. The teams fielded by Stimac recently had a number of under-23 players, who were part of the 2017 under-17 World Cup. Anwar Ali, Jeakson Singh, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Rahim Ali have all made it to the senior team. With three seniors, Stimac does not have to field a bunch of unknowns at the Asian Games.

India need games against stronger teams before the Asian Cup. By way of tournaments, there are the Asian under-23 championship qualifiers from September 4-12 and the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia from October 14-17. The Asian Games means an additional opportunity to play against tougher opponents before the Asian Cup, where India would look to clear the group stage for the first time.

The quality of opposition notwithstanding, this Indian team has looked different and proactive. They run, chase, harry their rivals and try to create moves instead of waiting for stray chances. Inclusion of young blood has injected fresh energy. The chief coach and players have said participating in the Asian Cup is not their aim, making their mark is. If ever the team had to be granted special permission, this is the time.

The AIFF has to play its part as well. It has to arrange funds if it comes to the last option and keep liaising with the sports ministry and Sports Authority of India at the same time. A lot will depend on the persuasion skills of the top federation officials. They have to be convincing enough and make the authorities believe that this Indian team deserves a chance. The momentum generated by a lot of effort should not be allowed to die down. This is the time to give Indian football a push.

Also Read: Igor Stimac’s appeal to PM Narendra Modi

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