Over the last couple of decades or so, Indian football fans haven’t had much cause to celebrate. The national team’s record in World Cup Qualifying competitions in general has been dismal. Unsurprisingly, the national team’s ranking has also been an eyesore for years. However, in recent times, especially over the last 3 years or so, the mood in the Indian Camp has seen a gradual upswing. The national team’s ranking has also seen a rapid rise. There was a stage not so long ago when the national team’s ranking languished in the 160s and 170s. More recently, this number had risen to as high as 97 (A number not seen since the 90s) and the team is currently ranked 104 (At the time of writing). So, how does all this tie in to Indian football’s watershed moment against Qatar ?
The Indian Super League (ISL) Revolution
Things have been steadily changing for Indian football ever since the start of the ISL (Indian Super League) in 2013. Prior to the ISL, Indian football fans had never been exposed to world class footballers gracing Indian pitches on a regular basis. Slowly and steadily, the infusion of money, TV coverage, well-maintained pitches, international coaches and former European football stars is starting to rub off on Indian football. The benefit of learning from the best in the business has seen significant improvements in the quality of the local players; particularly in the department of on-the-ball decision making.
The Huge Contribution of Stephen Constantine
While the ISL has definitely had its effect on Indian football, the real measuring stick for Indian football is how far the national team has come in recent years. When Stephen Constantine took charge of the national team in 2015, the state of affairs was a sorry one. The team was languishing at 173 in the FIFA Rankings and were in need of a drastic makeover. Whether he truly achieved that goal in its entirety is debatable. Yet there can be no doubt that he gave Indian football exactly the kind of fillip that was needed at the time. At the end of his reign, India had reached a ranking of 97 and were ready to take the next step forward.
India’s AFC Asian Cup 2019 Campaign
Following India’s promising but ultimately disappointing campaign in the AFC Asian Cup 2019, Stephen Constantine stepped down as coach of the Indian National Football Team. India had made a statement in the Asian Cup by thrashing a strong Thailand side 4-1 in the opener but ultimately came up short against hosts UAE 2-0 despite creating a number of chances. In the decisive final game against Bahrain, India looked a shadow of its former self from the first two games and preferred to sit deep against a superior Bahrain side. However, the inability to keep hold of the ball and constant long clearances tired the team out. Eventually, India conceded a soft penalty in the 90th minute after a tired looking challenge by Pronay Halder on a Bahrain player; Bahrain scored from the spot to knock India out of the Asian Cup in heart breaking fashion. Yet it was clear that Constantine had taken India as far as he could and that the team would need a radical change in order to reach the next level.
During his reign, he had brought a number of positives to Indian football such as playing a lot more international friendly games in a year, improving the stamina of the players and ensuring that the team holds its shape very well against superior opposition. However, the strategy of sitting deep against top quality opposition could work in a one-off game but is not a viable long-term strategy. India were in need of someone who could get the team to come out of its shell and build attacking moves against the best sides in Asia.
Enter Igor Stimac
It may be too early to pass judgements on Igor Stimac’s reign as head coach of the Indian National Football Team but the early results as well as the football on display point towards greater things. The biggest positive from team India’s recent performances is their willingness to build attacking moves from the defensive third in spite of heavy pressing from the opposition; especially against teams that are far superior to India. Another positive move by Stimac has been the infusion of some creative attacking talent into the squad. For those who follow the ISL & Kerala Blasters, the emergence of Sahal Abdul Samad on the national scene shouldn’t come as a surprise. In his limited appearances so far, he has shown exactly what India has been missing in midfield for a long-time; with his pace, tricky runs, link-up play and a penchant for a killer through-ball making him a headache for the opposition to deal with.
In addition to this, Stimac also seems to have immediately won over the dressing room. One of the squad players recently admitted that he makes all the players including the reserves feel like they all have a chance to play or even start a game. This has resulted in a real hunger and motivation within the team to play their best in every game.
Transition to a New Philosophy
An interesting aspect of Stimac’s reign so far is that all of India’s games have come against superior opposition. The opposition thus far has included the likes of Thailand, Curacao, North Korea, Tajikistan, Syria, Oman and Qatar. Hence, this has acted as a great platform for Stimac to firmly implement his possession-based football. Starting from the King’s Cup in Thailand to the Intercontinental Cup and now the World Cup Qualifiers, the progress made by the team is clearly visible.
While some of the results have been mixed like the 5-2 loss to North Korea and the 4-2 loss to Tajikistan; the manner in which India has gone about its games is heartening to watch. A good example of this was the game against North Korea. After going 3 goals down, India pulled 2 goals back before eventually losing. While the margin of defeat was huge, the fact that India didn’t let their shoulders drop while also taking the game to North Korea was a breath of fresh air. The chance to implement & perfect this new long-term philosophy against top quality opposition without the pressure of immediate results has benefitted the players immensely.
These games have also given Stimac the opportunity to try out a number of players. A criticism that was often levelled at Constantine was the fact that he had a core group of players from whom he never deviated too much. More specifically, he always played extremely defensive football against quality teams which wasn’t seen as very progressive. Hence, Stimac has used these games as a chance to find out which players can implement his philosophy and also learn from their mistakes along the way. At the same time, he has shown a very open mind and has not shut the door on any player.
India’s Tricky Start Against Oman
India were drawn in Group E of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers along with Oman, Qatar, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. India’s first game against Oman at home was a bit of an anti-climax. India raced into a first half lead courtesy off a cleverly worked set-piece move with the evergreen Sunil Chhetri finishing off in style. India also created a couple of clear cut-opportunities to extend their lead but were unable to finish off their chances. However, India’s decision to sit deep and hit on the counter in the second half would back fire. India’s old problem of being unable to hold onto the ball when under the pump conceded the initiative to Oman. Oman’s offensive pressure eventually told and India conceded 2 goals in the last 8 minutes to lose 1-2. This loss brought a wave of criticism towards the national team with many slating the team for lacking stamina and the mental fortitude to see out a result.
With the morale of the team slightly down, their next opponent was Asian Cup Champions Qatar in Doha.
Impending Disaster in Doha
Qatar was heading into this game on the back of a resounding 6-0 victory over Afghanistan. Moreover, they had plundered 25 goals in their last 8 games. Nevertheless, their coach Felix Sanchez Bas wasn’t taking India lightly and named a full-strength squad for the game; including star striker Ali Almoez and legendary captain Hassan Al Haydos.
India’s situation heading into this match was far from ideal. With just 5 days to psychologically recover from the anti-climactic loss to Oman, things weren’t looking very rosy for the Blue Tigers. To make matters worse, star striker and captain Sunil Chhetri was ruled out with fever. Further, star winger Ashique Kuruniyan was ruled out with a muscle strain. With world cup qualification at stake, it looked like India’s only way of getting a result from this game would be to play defensive.
India’s Stern Defence
Unsurprisingly India sat extremely deep against Qatar with speedy right-winger Udanta Singh acting as the only attacking outlet on the counter. As expected, Qatar came out all guns blazing and dominated early proceedings. To aid in breaking down India’s defensive organization, both their wingbacks also kept pushing up and making overlapping runs. India to their credit, held firm and maintained their shape under immense pressure.
Centre backs Sandesh Jhingan and Adil Khan brilliantly snuffed out all attacks and denied Ali Almoez any space and time to get off a shot. Moreover, they refused to be drawn out of position. Also, fullbacks Rahul Bheke and Mandar Rao Desai closed the spaces down in the wings. This made sure that Qatar’s wingers and wingbacks were limited to hitting routine crosses that Jhingan and Khan easily dealt with. In addition to India’s back-line was the double defensive pivot of Anirudh Thapa and Rowlin Borges. Both of them snuffed out danger as soon as Qatar got near India’s defensive third.
However, for all of India’s supreme defensive shape, they were unable to hold onto the ball and build moves from the back. While Qatar was mostly restricted to taking shots from distance, goal keeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had to put in an other-worldly performance to keep out some rasping drives at goal. Towards the end of the first half, it looked like only a matter of time before India’s defence caved in (Largely due to inviting excessive offensive pressure). In the end, India somehow managed to hold on till half-time.
A Team Transformed
Up until this point, the way India had played was a complete betrayal of what Igor Stimac had been trying to establish in the national team. If anything, it was very reminiscent of the way the team played under Constantine against top teams; and there was this palpable feeling that India’s heart-breaking loss to Bahrain in the Asian Cup would play out again. Enter Sahal Abdul Samad…
Sahal’s Counter Attack
Sahal hadn’t started in India’s loss against Oman but was given the nod this time around. With India’s focus on defence in the first half, he couldn’t really influence the game much. However, come the second half and the team looked a side transformed. Although Qatar still dominated possession, India started playing with an attacking mindset. All of a sudden, the team started building moves from the back and initiating counter attacks. Key to these moves was Sahal. His pace and tricky runs caught the Qatari players flat footed on quite a few occasions. He initiated a number of through balls that released the industrious and speedy Udanta on the counter. Udanta however, is still a work in progress and his final touch, ball and finish often let him down. That being said, he unleashed a left footed shot from distance that just sailed over the cross bar after working a nice one-two with Anirudh Thapa. Sahal also managed a left-footed volley that just narrowly missed the top corner.
A Historic Night in Doha
Qatar on the other hand did come close on some occasions with the crossbar also coming to the rescue. When the final whistle blew, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu dropped to his knees after putting in a stunning performance to keep out the mighty Qatar. A more spectacular sight was the Indian players celebrating with such vigour; almost as if they had won the match or even a tournament.
The clip below shows what the result means to the players with Sandesh Jhingan absolutely relishing the moment !!
All of a sudden, the magnitude of what they had just achieved dawned upon the players and the entire Indian football fraternity. This was by far the greatest result Indian football had achieved in the 21st century and also the best result the team had achieved in decades. Although India had achieved a monumental victory over UAE in a World Cup Qualifier in 2001, there was a different feeling this time around. Moreover, that result was on home soil (Taking nothing away from that victory).
To tie a game with Qatar at Doha is nothing short of a phenomenal achievement. What makes this result such a huge achievement for Indian football is that the seeds for such a result were sown some years back. Hence, this has been a work in progress and it appears that some results are finally coming to fruition. When India beat UAE back in 2001, it seemed more like a one-off result with the players putting in a lion-hearted performance and executing some tactics to perfection. This time around though, the results and the approach on the pitch are there for everyone to see. The tied game against China (Albeit in a friendly), the victories over Thailand & some impressive phases in games against superior opposition are no fluke.
This was far from a perfect performance. At times, it did seem as though India were riding their luck; with either profligate finishing from Qatar or the terrific intervention of Sandhu and Jhingan saving India’s blushes. Unsurprisingly, Qatar had a whopping 27 shots on goal as opposed to India’s measly 2 attempts. However, the fact is that India held on and could even have beaten them with a bit of luck. As the cliché goes, ‘Fortune Favours the Brave’. It may appear that the dark days of India’s heavy defeats against the likes of Japan, Saudi Arabia etc. may well be behind them.
The Implications of This Result
The belief with which India came out and counter attacked was a heartening sight for any Indian football fan to witness. To put this result into perspective, India is the only Asian nation to have achieved a clean sheet against Qatar in 2019. The only other countries that have scored against Qatar this year are Brazil, Argentina & Colombia (Pretty Illustrious Company eh ?). While India could do with huge improvements in the midfield and attacking departments, this result is a huge morale booster.
The team will now believe that they can take on the best in Asia and can get a result even away from home. There will no doubt be sterner tests and this team still has a long way to go before it can truly count itself among Asia’s elite.
Room for Improvement
So far, the signs of buying into Stimac’s philosophy look very positive. Yet India’s largely defensive approach against a quality side will not always pan out. It is very clear that India needs more creative players like Sahal and Ashique to emerge from the shadows; so that the side can well and truly transition into a possession-based approach and dominate games. This is easier said than done and will surely take some time. Stimac is already sending out the right signals by visiting as many academies as he can in his spare time. He is trying to ensure that all the future generations of Indian footballers are very comfortable with the ball.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the over-reliance on star striker Sunil Chhetri. He is now 35 years old and probably has a couple of years of top-level football left in him at best. What he has achieved in his career is nothing short of a remarkable feat. His 73 international goals make him the second highest active international scorer at present (Ahead of the likes of even Lionel Messi). The fact that India has not found a suitable replacement for him even at this ripe old age is not a good sign. When he decides to eventually hang up his boots, it’s not very clear where the goals will come from. Hence, there should be an emphasis on developing quality strikers for the future.
The Immediate Future
It may be too early for Indian football fans to start dreaming about a world cup qualification spot or even a spot in the next round of qualification. India’s chances of making the next round may be slim with both Oman and Qatar in an advantageous position.
However, the evidence from the first 2 games shows that India is capable of putting on a real fight. The path to the next round won’t be easy and India will have to ensure that they take maximum points from the games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Whatever happens in the rest of qualification, there is no debating the fact that the team’s massive result against Qatar is a watershed moment for Indian football. Years later, when India has a higher standing in world football and looks back at this result; the significance of this score-line may be lost on fans but the memories of this glorious night in Doha will never be forgotten !!