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Football

Poor footballing sense, lacking basics cost India a spot in round 3 of FIFA WC qualifiers

After showing early promise, India's campaign in the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers ended painfully as the team failed to score from open play for six hours now.

Poor footballing sense, lacking basics cost India a spot in round 3 of FIFA WC qualifiers
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The Indian football team finished third in Group A in the second round of the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifier. (FILE PHOTO: Indian Football Team)

By

John Mathew

Updated: 16 Jun 2024 7:54 AM GMT

India and the FIFA World Cup is an asymptotic relationship for those in the wider spectrum; always seeming to be, asked to be, but never quite becoming.

But for those closer to the microcosm, it goes far deeper, gets messy and wrenches in more pain. For them, the World Cup is a distant dream, but the path to it is not; it is just that India do not seem to want to take that route.

The qualification route to the 2026 World Cup began for India almost a year ago. The draws for the second round group stages were done on July 27, 2023, and India were placed in Group A alongside Qatar, Kuwait and Afghanistan.

India were the second-seeded team in the group. Hence, they were expected to go through. Afghanistan's turmoil and India's recent performances against Kuwait gave strength to the notion that India could advance to the third and final round.

The campaign started after a rather positive run of results. India won the SAFF Championship at home beating the likes of Lebanon and Kuwait.

Excelling in Kuwait

They participated in other tournaments and got more exposure against nations such as Iraq and Malaysia. Indian football was going through some of its highest highs in recent times. India's first game in the bid for a place at the 2026 showpiece was the away fixture at Kuwait City against Al-Azraq.

India started out in the best possible way they could, beating Kuwait at their place. It was not just the result that caught the eye, but the performance that led to it.

The Blue Tigers were splendid out-of-possession, prowling on any pressing triggers and opportunities, which in turn limited Kuwait to just three shots the whole game. It was a game that was played largely in midfield, with both sides struggling to weave moves that broke the opposition down.

But for India to take the upper hand in such tight games and hold onto it was something not seen before, especially when it was an away game.

Manvir Singh's goal, which began from the keeper and ended with his final touch showed the directness which India wanted to enforce in the game. Kuwait always seemed better when settled but India never allowed them to score and walked away in style with a historic and precious three points.


Failing to Asian champions

From the time the group was drawn, it was realistically assumed that India would not get any points from Qatar.

So, when Igor Stimac's men turned up at the Kalinga Stadium to play Al-Annabi, there was no realistic hope, but rather over-optimistic expectations.

Those expectations were cleanly swept away by the Asian Champions. From conceding three shots in the previous game, India went on to concede three goals against Qatar. It was India's last game of 2023 and only their second loss (in normal time) over 16 games. Till then, everything had gone to plan.

The national team would then shortly regroup, at Qatar for the Asian Cup. The 2024 edition of Asia's footballing best was deemed a big one for India. It was their second consecutive qualification to the tournament, and after having missed out on qualification by a matter of seconds last time; there was hope that they could scrape through the group over Syria as one of the best third-placed teams.

Australia and Uzbekistan were at a level above India realistically. India's chances were limited; the squad was severely stricken by injuries and was inexperienced at that level, head coach Igor Stimac's statements on how the tournament should be not taken at face value in terms of results and how it is not of high priority proved to be of sour taste.

The results that followed spoke even more on the same. India returned as the worst side in the tournament having failed to get any goals or points in the showpiece.

Igor Stimac during an interaction with the Indian players. (Photo credit: Igor Stimac/X)

Momentum and morale are key components for any side to win a match. It is tough to maintain morale without momentum and building momentum is impossible without morale. India lost both of those in Qatar, and they never got it back.

Since then India's campaign was marred by issues of just not performing enough. The situation had been very favourable for India.

Kowtowing to Afghanistan

With three points from the first two games and the games against Afghanistan yet to come, India were expecting to achieve nine points; a total which would have likely taken them through.

The Afghans were in freefall with their own set of internal struggles and heavy losses on the pitch constantly probing. But football is a game that is played on the pitch, past results do not matter for the 90 minutes you play, but India's games felt as if they'd taken to a sense of victory on paper as the performances worsened.

The Afghans came after a 1-8 and 0-4 thrashing by Qatar and Kuwait. It was the Afghan coach's (Ashley Westwood) first two games in charge of the side.

He had the same two-month break from the 0-4 drubbing to the games against India, with likely a three-week camp and a couple of friendlies against local clubs in Saudi whilst India played the Asian Cup. The Afghan side was expected to improve, but yet it felt as if India underestimated them.

Afghanistan Head Coach Ashley Westwood alongside Sunil Chettri (Photo Credits - AIFF)

In the first of the two consecutive games against The Lions of Khurasan, India played out a bland 0-0 draw at Saudi. Afghanistan gained a point, while India dropped two.

The fact that India's best (and likely only) chance of the game came in the 78th minute from a corner sums it up well. In the return game at Guwahati, the result worsened as India lost 2-1.

A key question posed in both the games was why India seemed lacking in several of the basics.

For a group that has worked for that while, India just seemed off their rhythm. For all the build-up they did, they could not get into the final attacking phase without a cross; and the Afghans were prepared for India's crosses.

All the wins on paper were reversed on the pitch. Afghanistan had more shots, more on target and more goals in the end. India's only shot on target came from the penalty spot.

The basics were often at fault. First touches faltered several attacks, composure seemed lacking, decision-making felt poor and attacking efficiency was literally and figuratively almost nil. The game plan of Ashley Westwood worked in both games, it's only India that facilitated their path to scoring the second time around.

The winner of Afghanistan is an apt example. Even though the goal was scored from a penalty, it came to that simply due to an Afghan long-ball (from an India offside call), which likely would not have stood - had the defence kept their line well.

The sequence that led to Afghanistan's penalty.

Wasted opportunity

At the end of it, India could earn only one out of six against the lowest-seeded side in the group. And to add to the gloom, Sunil Chettri announced that the home game against Kuwait would be his last in Indian colour.

Hence, the game against Kuwait was not just crucial for progression but also it was India's last chance to pay an ode to the man who took them aloft on his shoulders for over two decades.

There were big emotions riding on the game. But yet again, India delivered a disappointing result.

The final game of India's all-time top-scorer ended goalless. In total, the Blue Tigers had gone over six hours of qualification football without a goal from open play.

It was not that India did not have chances, but did not make enough of them. They did not convert the ones they got while also failing to create enough to compensate for the misses. The entire idea since Constantine had left was to create a more imposing game style, which simply had been lost since the win against Kuwait. Momentum was out of the frame. Morale seemed to be at its lowest.

India's focus in attack began to feel wing-heavy. The emphasis on full-backs and wingers to bombard the box with often un-calculated crosses just did not feel right.

For all the silky football and sequential breakdowns of opposition defences as seen in the SAFF and other tournaments, it felt as if there was a change somewhere along the way.

The blueprint was forgotten at some point and the Blue Tigers seemed to have the blues sooner, rather than later. The questions of player selections are ever-lasting and opinion-based but when the players who seem to add something to the attack are dropped from the line-up often, it really gets confusing.

The side's ineffectiveness through the centre of the pitch was getting visible and opponents acted accordingly, to which India never really reacted. The core tactical ideas of the side seemed to change at each camp.

The Starting line-ups India used at all of their 6 games (marked in red denotes a change from the first XI of each camp)

Marred by controversy

And with all but hope gone, India faced a rather second-string Qatar side on the final day. A win was a necessity for progression and India did perform immensely better and could have got something of it had it not been for some very controversial refereeing in the process.

They succumbed to a late controversial Qatari resurgence, losing the game 1-2 on the day and from the qualification process.

The campaign saw the end of India's recent peak and their gradual regression. Qualification to the third round was always going to be tough and historic, but it remained possible till the final day. The phrase 'so near, yet so far' could not get a more apt scenario to explain.

Especially considering the start, India seemed well-placed. But, during the continental tournament which was considered to be of lesser priority to the qualifiers; India lost their track and headed for the fall. More than the outcome, it was the manner in which it was brought to be that will remain a pain for Indian Football.

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