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Indian football's entry into Asian Games: How the ice is broken in corridors of sports ministry

Sports minister Anurag Thakur, on Wednesday evening, announced the "good news for Indian football lovers!" The return of India's men's and women's football teams to the Asian Games has sent a ripple effect among the country's sports fraternity.

Indian footballs entry into Asian Games: How the ice is broken in corridors of sports ministry

Union sports minister Anurag Thakur being presented with a jersey of the Indian football team by the AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey at the sports ministry on July 26, 2023. (Photo Credit: Kalyan Chaubey/ Twitter)


Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 27 July 2023 3:41 PM GMT

The return of India's men's and women's football teams to the Asian Games has sent a ripple effect among the country's millions of fans, players, and officials. Sports minister Anurag Thakur, on Wednesday evening, took to Twitter, to announce the "good news for Indian football lovers!"

The last time India participated in the football events of the Games was in the Incheon Asian Games of 2014, when the men's team finished 26th among the 29 teams, while the women ninth among 11.

Indian football - ranked outside the top eight in Asia - managed to secure an entry in the Games after a fortnight of hard lobbying by former footballers and AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey, a BJP nominee for the post when the elections were held in September last year.

Criteria relaxed

The Indian men's and women's teams are ranked 18th and 11th in Asia, respectively. The July 10 guidelines issued by the ministry, stating that only the teams ranked in the top eight would be considered for participation in the Games, came as a blow to the football teams.

But "the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India, has decided to relax the rules to facilitate the participation of both the teams, which were not qualifying as per the existing criterion," Thakur asserted in his tweet.

Indian men's team coach Igor Stimac was elated with the decision. He called it a "great day for Indian football". "It is a great day for Indian football and an enormously encouraging decision by the honourable Sports Minister Anurag Thakur ji and our government! Big thanks to all of them for allowing us the opportunity to challenge the best teams in the Asian Games."

The reason for relaxing the rule was the Indian men's team's recent impressive performance at home, where they were undefeated for 11 consecutive matches and won three successive tournaments in the space of a month, including the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship.

"Keeping in mind their latest performances in recent times, the Ministry decided to grant the relaxation," Thakur stated.

Chaubey, being the acting secretary of IOA, was at loggerheads with the association's president PT Usha, who opposed football's entry into the Games even as the names of the squad, approved by the federation, were sent to the Hangzhou Asian Games' organizer.

Performances speak

Not only Chaubey, a former India goalkeeper of repute, has made it a prestige issue for himself, but also he wanted to ensure the men's team do not lose on the momentum they gleaned lately. Lately, the Blue Tigers, led by their talismanic striker, Sunil Chhetri, have been playing an attractive brand of football under the coaching of Stimac. Their recent victories against Lebanon and Kuwait were a testament to that claim.

The coach was among the first few persons who raised their voice for football's inclusion in the Asiad, tagging Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sports minister Thakur in a Twitter post.

Former footballers like Shabbir Ali, IM Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia, and Subrata Paul too threw their weight behind the team, stating that the participation of the team will give exposure to the Indian national team players, who were quite young and more than seven players are under the age of 23.

Football in Asia is a U-23 event with three senior players allowed to play. With the Indian men's team having a good mix of seniors and youngsters, it made them a strong unit. Stimac has included a new crop of talented players, such as Lallianzuala Chhangte, Mahesh Singh Naorem, Anirudh Thapa, and Sahal Abdul Samad, over the last couple of years, and he has also been successful to get the team to play in the style he wants, and the team, too, has successfully executed his strategies.

Hard lobbying

While the negotiation was still on, with Chaubey frequently juggling between the corridors of sports ministry and his offices at AIFF and IOA, he made a strong case for the football teams in every manner possible. The most important of them was presenting the vision of the federation to the sports ministry. On July 20, he met Thakur and made a presentation to the ministry, apprising them about the federation's outlook for Indian football and the future the sport boasts.

That the men's team performed creditably since Chaubey's coronation to the top post at the AIFF added weight to his words, and the ministry eventually expressed faith in his leadership.

The teams needed exposure, and Chaubey was right on the money. Unlike his predecessors, who neither had performances to back their moves nor did they made any effort to elevate the status of football in India, Chaubey and general secretary Shaji Prabhakaran - both have taken initiatives to revive football culture in the country by retrieving several old tournaments and organizing more competitions for the national men's team - were quite adamant about the development of football.

They never backed off under an adverse situation, with other federations also trying to get their teams on board for the Asiad. Chaubey's persuasive efforts and the game's widespread popularity helped football trump other federations. Thakur was convinced as the AIFF had "justifiable reasons" to make the ministry relax the strict criteria and bear the expenses of the teams in the Games.

Victory for officials

For the officials, this was no less than a victory of the hard negotiations they put in in the last couple of weeks. It was evident in their statements.

Chaubey said: “Indian Football has been on an unprecedented rise recently, and I believe this impetus will further boost our players’ morale in all upcoming events. It’s my honour to represent the All India Football Federation and moments like this, further encourage our steadfast commitment to continue developing the ecosystem in the country.”

"It is very encouraging for Indian Football that the Government has allowed the participation of men’s and women’s football teams in the Asian Games. This decision of the MYAS has further encouraged all our stakeholders, and with the game time at Asian Games, our players will gain tremendous exposure playing against some of the giants in Asian football. We will continue to work hard with a focus to deliver success on and off the pitch and reach our goals as per Strategic Roadmap Vision 2047," said Shaji Prabhakaran, the general secretary.

With the men's team to compete in the King's Cup in Thailand in September, FIFA World Cup qualifiers for the AFC nations in October and Asian Cup in January, and the women's team to play in the AFC Olympic qualifying fixtures, playing in the Asian Games- the draw for which will be announced on July 27 - will be a valuable asset to the Indian teams.

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