We take a look at the Indian team’s journey – the current team and road ahead for the Blue Tigers.
The Blue Tigers – A short look at India’s international journey over the years.
Till date, the Brazil-head 1950 Men’s World Cup is the only time Team India have qualified for the tournament. The 1950 participation came at the expense of three other teams, with Myanmar, The Philippines and Indonesia pulling out. Unfortunately, due to a combination of several reasons, India had to pull out of the competition too.
India’s non-participation despite qualification left a bad taste in FIFA’s mouth, who then barred India from participating in the next World Cup. Post that, the Blue Tigers next participated in the 1986 World Cup qualifiers, having not taken part in the previous seven editions. Outside the World Cup qualifiers, their experience with the international tournaments during this period was a bit of a mixed bag.
India’s international journey began in 1951 when they emerged champions at the 1951 Asian Games. After failing to make it past the group stage at the 1954 Asian Games, the Blue Tigers finished a respectable fourth at the 1956 Olympic Games.
The Indians continued their good form as they finished fourth again at the 1958 Asian Games. Although the Indian team failed to qualify for the 1960 Asian Games, they came back strongly a couple of years later when they emerged victorious at the 1962 Asian Games, picking up their second winner’s trophy at the Asian Games. The 1964 Asian Cup saw India finish as runners-up to hosts Israel.
On the back foot
The next couple of decades saw a sharp decline for the Indian football team at the international stage. The 1966 Asian Games saw the Blue Tigers get knocked out in the group stages, while the 1970 edition saw a better performance with India finishing third. The 1974 and 1978 Asian Games saw India get knocked out again in the group stages, signalling a sharp decline for the two-time champions. The next edition was slightly better as the Indian team managed to reach to the quarter-finals on home turf, before getting knocked out by eventual bronze medallists Saudi Arabia.
The 1984 Asian Cup, India’s first qualification since their runners-up campaign in 1964, was a disaster, with the team finishing last in the group stages. The only silver lining during this period was the Blue Tigers holding their own in the South Asian competitions. Winning the South Asian Games in 1985 and 1987 would have provided some solace during a wretched international period.
The Blue Tigers kicked off the inaugural South Asian Football Federation Championship in 1993 by emerging victorious, which they followed up with victorious campaigns in 1997 and 1999.
At the turn of the century, the Blue Tigers had a resurgence with promising players like Bhaichung Bhutia and I.M Vijayan leading the team to a bright future. India performed decently in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, coming agonisingly close to qualification to the next round.
The team had significant performances over the next few years, finishing second at the 2003 Afro-Asian Games and making it to the semi-finals of the 2003 SAFF Championship. Changes in coaching personnel didn’t help the team, however, with the Tigers lacking stability with the constant changes.
The Tigers saw a glimpse of hope with their win at the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, but the next few years resulted in a struggle. The 2012 Nehru Cup saw the Indians emerge as champions, dulling some of the pain from the multiple AFC Cup failures. By 2015, India had reached their lowest FIFA rankings (173) but had some relief when they made it through to the second round of the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers before getting knocked out. A gradual improvement in performances with victories over Laos and Macau saw them qualify for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. But it didn’t go to plan as India bowed out of the competition having finished bottom in their group. Under current coach Igor Štimac, the Indian team is competing in the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
The chinks in the armour – What plagues Indian football?
Currently ranked 105, the Indian team has made very less progress over the last 30 years ranking-wise, with 173 being lowest and highest being 94 in 1996. For far too long, the potential of Indian football has been talked about, with phrases like “the football in India is a sleeping giant” being passed around. Though the potential might be there, making it count on the international stage will have to start through Asia. The base has to be set forth properly with clear strategic plans, many of which have been spoken up but need to be implemented and followed up with. The planning starts at the grassroots level along with the restructuring of the footballing pyramid. A large number of the national team players play around 25-30 competitive games a season, which is shockingly low compared to the international circuit.
The youth structure is something that has been spoken about for a long time but hasn’t been really followed up with. Players ideally should have better competitive exposure from a young age, but the current structure doesn’t provide them with an adequate number of competitive games. The development cycle is non-competitive, with many talented young players and coaches alike never getting the opportunity to move ahead. The perfect example for this would be India’s current captain and one of the country’s greatest-ever strikers, Sunil Chhetri. He continues to lead his team from the front, but having to continually depend on the individual brilliance of a 36-year-old speaks volumes about the development of the game in the country over the past few years. In Chhetri’s absence, can India rely on the rest to deliver in the crunch games?
There is little evidence to suggest that India will do better without Chhetri than with him. Chhetri has scored 46% of India’s goals under Igor Štimac, who is India’s fifth coach over the last decade. Going ahead, for India to even become an Asian superpower, a lot will depend on the coach – the one who builds the team. What should matter is the vision of the coach and how they plan to influence the football structure. Over the last two decades, many coaches have been appointed by the AIFF – many of them foreign – but if we look at their impact and legacy 10-15 years later, nothing stands out. Along with a proper development structure, proper facilities must be made available for the clubs to train at. For any country, a lack of proper facilities hurts both – the domestic clubs and the national teams. A conscious effort must be made to invest in the youth and provide them the facilities which can help them hone their skills.
One prevalent issue, which is not only the case in India but also worldwide, is the time-frame given to coaches. Gone are the days where a coach would be guaranteed 3-4 seasons to build his team; all that matters now is immediate results and failure to do so results in termination. It is important to put faith in someone and trust the process. India’s recent 6-0 loss to UAE underlined a major issue – a lack of clarity on the pitch, which was showcased by players’ movements despite the team fielding many youngsters.
If we look at their attacking stats, the Blue Tigers have found the net only 11 times in 12 matches. Possession-based game play has also disappeared, with most of the games being played with the clear intent of desperate last-ditch defending.
From Asia, only a handful of countries have played the World Cup; eleven, to be precise. The World Cup appearances of countries ranked below India such as Indonesia, Kuwait and DPR Korea should motivate the Blue Tigers.
With the 2026 World Cup consisting of 48 teams, the Indian team should plan ahead to try to get through the qualification rounds. A strong qualification campaign will at least raise India’s profile as a potential Asian giant, if not outright guarantee World Cup football. Player growth and development is directly linked to high-quality competitions, and if our players are exposed to better teams on a regular basis then overall standard of Indian football will grow as well.
With FC Goa playing in the AFC Champions League, one can call it a step in the right direction. Playing against the best in Asia will push the players to go the distance and keep improving. Similarly, the national team should also start with a goal of regularly qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup.
The Way ahead
In the current World Cup Qualifiers, the Blue Tigers struggled to beat Bangladesh and Afghanistan – two sides who have comfortably been beaten in the group stages. With the second-leg matches coming up, we shall get to see how much progress the national side has made since the draws played out. The road to becoming an Asian powerhouse will need to start with India first becoming the No. 1 team in South Asia. With proper development and investment plans, Indian football should be able to take giant strides.
In reality, investment in Indian football has been very poor. Football’s commercial struggles have led to broadcasters not willing to broadcast national games as the companies don’t make much profit from these matches. This, unfortunately, affects everyone in the system.
Multiple clubs in India face issues with funding and proper sponsorship. Going ahead, a system must be built that is transparent, accountable, and helps India take steps towards developing the national game with proper investment in players and facilities right from the grassroots level.
Association – All India Football Federation
Confederation – AFC
Head Coach – Igor Štimac
Captain – Sunil Chhetri
Most matches – Sunil Chhetri
Top Scorer – Sunil Chhetri (72)
Stadiums – Salt Lake Stadium, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Sree Kanteerava Stadium, Fatorda Stadium
Current FIFA ranking – 105
Six5Six – Sportswear firm Six5Six signed a five-year deal in late 2018 as the Blue Tigers’ principal kit sponsors.
Hero Motocorp – India’s leading two-wheeler manufacturers have been sponsors of the Indian Super League since 2014.
Nivia – Nivia Sports serve as the official ball sponsor to the AIFF. They’re also the kit sponsors and official match ball sponsors for numerous Indian clubs and tournaments.
SAI – Sports Authority of India, India’s national sports body whose main aim is to promote and develop sports in India, with the additional goal of upgrading the facilities and maintaining them. SAI has joined hands with the AIFF on numerous occasions, with most recent tie-up aimed at launching an online coaching programme during lockdown. The two even launched an e-pathshala to develop and grow the game amongst the youngsters of the country.
Sports and Youth Services Development, Odisha – In 2018, the government of Odisha signed an MOU with the AIFF to develop the sport in the state. The India U17, India U15 and Indian Arrows squads already have a training ground in Bhubaneshwar as the AIFF continues to enhance the development of the younger teams.
Football Sports Development Limited – The commercial partner of the AIFF. The FSDL is a subsidiary of Reliance that runs India’s top tier football league – the Indian Super League. In 2010, the AIFF signed a 15-year deal with the Reliance Group to develop a new league to grow and enhance the game in the country.