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India can qualify for 2026 FIFA World Cup, say former players

Drawn against Qatar, Kuwait and Afghanistan/Mongolia in Group A of the 2026 FIFA WC qualifiers, India have a good chance of progressing if they prepare well, say former India players Lalrindika Ralte and Victor Amalraj.

India can qualify for 2026 FIFA World Cup, say former players

The Indian men's football team (Photo credit: AIFF)


Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 28 July 2023 12:57 PM GMT

Kolkata: As the draw for the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers is out, Lalrindika Ralte, fondly called Dika, is optimistic about India's prospects.

"India has a good chance to qualify (for the World Cup)," says Ralte, a former attacking midfielder with the Blue Tigers.

India has been drawn against Qatar and Kuwait in Group A, while their third opponent will be the winner between Afghanistan and Mongolia. The Igor Stimac-coached side has been slotted in Plot 2 of the draw after the team rose to the 99th spot in the latest FIFA rankings.

Also Read | India's place in Pot 2 for FIFA World Cup Qualifiers hangs in balance

Indian football fraternity is basking in the glory of the men's team's recent sterling performances at home. India, led by its talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri, has delivered a string of brilliant performances, which included an 11-match undefeated streak and three trophies, including the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship.

'No big difference between India and Kuwait'

Ralte says India is no alien to its opponent Kuwait, considered a tough side given its track record in international football. The Middle Eastern side played in the 1982 FIFA World Cup. Kuwait, ranked 137th, has recently lost to India in the final of the SAFF Championship, where the winner was decided in a penalty shootout. In the group game, too, Kuwait, despite its penurious ranking, held India to a draw.

"There is not much difference between India and Kuwait, we have seen it in the SAFF Championship. We played them twice. I think India played better in the first match compared to the final. I see no big difference between them. So, I believe India has strong chances against them," stresses Ralte, who last played for India in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

India will play its first qualifier against Kuwait on November 16.

Lalrindika Ralte of Mumbai City FC in action in ISL. (Photo credit: ISL)

The attacking midfielder from Mizoram, however, cautions India of Qatar, the reigning Asian champion. Qatar has recently made a quarterfinal finish at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. India is scheduled to face The Maroon in its second qualifier on November 21.

"Maybe, Qatar will be a bit tough team for us. But if you see our performances at the moment, India is doing well. Hopefully, fingers crossed, I think they have a good chance to qualify (for the World Cup)," says Ralte.

India and Qatar were drawn previously in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, also part of the 2024 Asian Cup qualifiers, where Stimac's boys put up solid defensive shows, holding Qatar to a goalless draw at the first round at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha before succumbing to a narrow 1-0 loss at home, where India played with ten men for a major part of the match after Rahul Bheke was sent off in the 17th minute.

'Defensively, we are a much better side'

Ralte is impressed with the progress coach Stimac has made for India since that defeat.

"He (Stimac) has brought a lot of changes to the team. He sees the players' potential too like how he can use them in different positions- the wingers, strikers, and even the midfielders also. And if you see, Anwar Ali and Sandesh Jhingan are pairing up very solidly in the back. Nikhil Poojary is also operating immensely," he argues.

"I think defensively, we are a much better side compared to the previous team. So, I believe this team can do a lot of good things in the future. We have a good team and a very good coach now. The only thing we need is good preparation. If they are allowed to train together for a long time, I think the players and the coach can bring results," Ralte maintains.

'We should be optimistic but cautious'

Former footballer Victor Amalraj echos Ralte.

"There is a different mood in Indian football now due to the performance the team gave in recent tournaments. The victory in the SAFF Championship is a huge achievement," asserts Amalraj, the former India captain.

Also Read | Reflecting on Past Performances: How Indian football teams have performed at Asian Games

"If they play like the way they did in the SAFF Championship, with such rhythm, such motivation, they can make a point against Qatar and Kuwait and qualify for the third round," he adds.

Former India captain Victor Amalraj. (Photo credit: Special Arrangement)

Amalraj, however, raises a cautionary note, "It is too difficult a task. We should be optimistic, but at the same time, we should be very cautious. But in football, at the end of the day, we do not believe in rankings. On the given day if the team performs well, the ranking will not work."

India's rank, 99th, puts it only behind Qatar, ranked 59th, in the group, while Kuwait is ranked 137th. Afghanistan and Mongolia, who will face off for the fourth place in Group A, are ranked 157th and 183rd, respectively.

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