Every football follower in India dreams that one day their nation participates in the FIFA World Cup. When the World Cup comes around every four years instead of seeing National flags of Brazil and Argentina on the streets, we wish to see the Tiranga rising high on every corner.
On 10th January 2017, when it was announced that the FIFA Council unanimously approved an expansion to 48 teams for the FIFA World Cup (from 2026 onwards ) which had been campaigned for by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, a slight glimmer of hope for the optimistic Indian football fanatics arose. The question that most people asked was is it possible for India to qualify in the FIFA 2026 World Cup ?
But then if we dream to take part in the World Cup, first our National Football Team has to feature in the AFC Asian Cup consistently.
The last time the Indian National Football team participated in the AFC Asian Cup was back in 2011. And they qualified so for the first time after previously qualifying in the 1984 AFC Asian Cup.
After 27 years when they finally took part in Asia’s premier football competition, they were knocked out in the group stages itself ; losing all three matches and conceding 13 goals in the process. The display of the Bhaichung Bhutia led side gave Indian football a reality check which the AIFF took very seriously.
In an interview with NDTV, Sunil Chhetri mentioned ,”I am happy with where we(India) have reached but i am not satisfied. All the other Asian teams ( let us not talk about the world right now) are improving at a much faster pace. Are we improving? Yes, but it is not equal to as the other Asian teams.”
The bitter truth is that India still lies quite a few places behind many Asian footballing nations. And this has to change rapidly. The highest rated players of Asia all play in the best leagues of Europe. The day more number of Indian players start playing in European leagues, you will sense that the Indian footballers are stepping a level above.
In 2016, AIFF President Praful Patel expressed his desire of India participating in the 2022 World Cup. “Many of the current Under-16 boys (now U-17) will be a well-knit group and will be ready for national team duty in time for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, which will start around the same time.”
That is a massive statement to declare itself. Till 2022, only 32 teams will be taking part at the main stage. Out of the 32, only 4 spots are reserved for Asian teams.
To put it in another way, basically India has to raise their standard to pool themselves with AFC giants Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran ; who all are at least 10 years ahead of India in terms of development in football. And the competition doesn’t end there ; even a country such as Uzbekistan currently rank 48 in the FIFA rankings.
2019 AFC Asian Cup
Before competing against the best of Asia, you first have to play with the best of Asia. And as mentioned earlier, the Blue Tigers are yet to make regular appearances in the AFC Asian Cup itself.
Cometh the 2019 AFC Asian Cup ; for the first time 24 nations will be contesting instead of the traditional 16 nation format. This increases the odds of the Indian Football team to feature in the AFC Asian Cup on a regular basis.
In 2019, the AFC Asian Cup will be held in the United Arab Emirates. And it is highly likely that 129th World ranked India will take part in it. Infact India should be aiming for further progress than group stage matches. Matchday 1 of the third round of the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers is on 28th March, 2017.
It is only through the AFC Asian Cup that the Indian National Football team can rise to dominance in Asian football. And the need to first be a part of Asia’s elite is a requisite to think of matching shoulder to shoulder with the world’s best.
Chances of India to qualify in the FIFA 2026 World Cup
Optimism may have no bounds. In the 2026 edition of the football extravaganza, 48 nations will battle to claim the World’s best title. Out of the 48 nations, most probably 9 nation spots will be reserved for the Asian teams. The FIFA council will confirm on the exact number of spots reserved for the Asian Confederation soon.
What we are looking at with sheer realism and rationalism is that India needs to become part of the top nine teams in Asia in nine years.
The mission may be termed as feasible enough. With the current efforts being invested into Indian football by the AIFF ; there is quite a possibility that India actually make it to the top 48 in the world by 2026.
India has been performing extremely well in the international scenario ; jumping from being ranked 171 in the start of 2015 to rank 129 currently. At this pace, millions of dreams might just come true.
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