Indian football has been extremely trying on the mind of the passionate, patriotic football fan. Not many modern football-lovers in India choose to undergo the torment of watching Indian football - the majority stick strictly to the European game – but for those who do, it can be glimpses of joy followed by long stretches of misery.
India in a pre-kick-off huddle, before taking on Qatar in the 2026 World Cup Qualifiers - their last competitive game. (Photo: AIFF/X)
However, the last decade has seen a slow, but steady, resurgence with the men’s national team. The Blue Tigers have established themselves as the dominant force in South Asia – winning three of four SAFF Championships (2015, 2021 and 2023) during this time - and are now competitive with most Asian countries.
With the 2023 AFC Asian Cup kicking off in less than a week, the excitement is building for India’s participation in Asia’s premier international competition. This will be the Blue Tigers’ fifth appearance in the tournament and the first time they play in consecutive editions. While qualifying was a satisfactory achievement, the question is whether India can make noise in the tournament proper.
India will have their work cut out for them, being the lowest ranked team in one of the most difficult groups in the tournament – Australia (25), Uzbekistan (68), Syria (91), and India (102). While FIFA’s rankings will not count for much once the whistle blows, the Blue Tigers are scheduled to play their opponents in a descending order of difficulty.
The opener is against Australia, the winners of the 2015 competition, on 13th January. Having qualified for the round-of-16 in the 2022 World Cup, and only narrowly losing it to eventual winners Argentina, the Socceroos are one of the favorites to win the Asian Cup. India's last competitive meeting with Australia came in the 2011 tournament and ended in a 4 – 0 defeat. Subrata Pal’s heroics in net limited the damage on that occasion. The Socceroos are far more capable thirteen years on, but they will be missing Mathew Leckie and Jamie McLaren – both of whom played significant minutes in that World Cup run – through injury. It will be interesting to see if India can emerge with something credible.
India’s second confrontation is against Uzbekistan on January 18th. The White Wolves are among the best teams in Asia to have not made the past few World Cups. Their FIFA ranking does not justify their on-field ability, which features disciplined and technical play on both sides of the ball. In October of 2023, the White Wolves drew against Mexico, a team 53 places ahead of them per FIFA’s rankings. They led that game for 38 minutes and were unlucky to not emerge victorious. They also drew 2 –2 at home against Iran (Asia’s best ranked team), in their World Cup Qualifier in November. However, the Uzbeks will be without their captain Eldor Shomurodov (who is on loan at Cagliari in the Serie A) due to injury.
India's final group fixture is against Syria on the 23rd of January. Based off results against other Asian sides, the Blue Tigers appear to be similarly matched to the Qasioun Eagles. The two teams even drew 1 – 1 in their most recent meeting during the 2019 Intercontinental Cup. By the time this game is played, both teams will likely know what they need to qualify for the next round. Nevertheless, a big three points in this fixture could go a long way for the Blue Tigers.
Despite the daunting group, there are several factors that favor India.
The top two teams in each group along with the four best 3rd place finishers from the six groups will progress to the knockout stages. This means every hard-fought point counts, and even a singular win can be enough to progress to the next round. With more teams progressing past the group stage (16) than those exiting it (8), the Blue Tigers should back themselves to squeeze through into the round-of-16.
India celebrating their 4 - 0 AFC Challenge Cup Final victory against Tajikistan, that earnt them a spot in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. Chhetri scored a hat-trick that night to take India to its first Asian Cup appearance in 27 years. Tajikistan will make their Asian Cup debut in this year's competition.
India have never made it past the group stage and will be determined to do so. The Blue Tigers were in prime position to do so in their last appearance (2019) having defeated Thailand 4 – 1 in their opening game. However, failing to take their chances in a 2 – 0 loss against UAE and failing to earn a point in their final group game against Bahrain, after a negative performance and a last-minute penalty concession, cost them a spot in the knockout phase.
This year’s squad boasts more experience than the 2019 one; Nine players have prior Asian Cup involvement compared to 2019’s two.
In an interview with the AIFF, Gurpreet Singh mentioned how the previous Asian Cup campaigns have taught him is to set the ‘intent’ early.
“I’ve learnt over the years that one needs to show the right intent that we have. As a player, I did not know how important it could be to show intent in the last two Asian Cups. In 2011, I was just 18 and was lucky to even be in the side, and in 2019, I was playing at that stage for the first time, but I think I have the correct experience now to come with that intent and have it rub off on the others.”
India is favored by a massive expatriate community in Qatar – where the tournament is played – so support for the Indian team is expected to be considerable. Hundreds of fans welcomed the arrival of the Blue Tigers at the Hammad International Airport in Doha on December 30th, and there is no doubt it will translate to the stadiums.
India, aided by 15,000 Indian fans, defeated Kuwait on 17th November 2023 to win their first away World Cup qualifier game in 22 years. If the fans can make India feel at home again, India are sure to play more inspired football.
The Blue Tigers are coming off an incredible 2023, which included three titles, a 11-game unbeaten streak, and that famous win against Kuwait. There is a positive air surrounding the team and the country’s football faithful will hope the good form continues into this year.
The Ahmed bin Ali Stadium will host India's first two AFC Asian Cup 2023 fixtures. India's first opponents - Australia - lost here to Argentina in the Round-of-16 of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Igor Stimac has instilled a strong sense of self-belief among his players which is visible in the way they perform, and fight for each other.
It is also reflected in Sandesh Jhingan’s words upon arrival in Qatar:
“What we have learned in the last few years is that we must never fear any opposition."
“Believe in the work you do, believe in your group, and the sky’s the limit for this batch. We must stay humble, keep improving, and hopefully do something special.”
This is something Indian athletes historically lacked across sports when it came to international competition. The renaissance of the men’s football team, both tactically and mentally, under Stimac is encouraging.
The performance of the team in big continental competitions like the Asian Cup can dictate the trajectory of football’s growth in India. This year’s tournament presents a difficult road for the Blue Tigers, but on a good day (praying for a good ten days or more) I would not put it past them to overcome their opponents.