I am often asked if India could qualify for a FIFA Men’s World Cup anytime soon. The question befuddles me. Given that we suffered the ignominy of starting the previous World Cup qualification process in the first round; punishment reserved for those who weren’t ranked amongst the top 34 nations in the continent, it is quite a bit of a stretch to imagine being at Qatar 2022 or in North America in 2026.
Stephen Constantine’s work over the last four years ensured that India would begin this cycle in the second round, but there are a lot of hurdles to surmount before that long awaited dream comes to fruition. The Englishman started his second stint with the national team in that first round qualifier against Nepal in 2015. India were ranked 173rd in the world at the time. When he quit after the Asian Cup in January this year, we were at 97 and ranked fifteenth in the continent. He had more than done his job.
In hindsight, he had timed his exit just about right. National teams operate in competition cycles and Constantine left enough time for the AIFF to find a person to take India into a new World Cup qualification campaign. And that person is Igor Štimac. The Croatian took over just before the King’s Cup in June, and promptly handed six players their debut in the first match against Curacao.
One of the criticisms levelled at Constantine was his refusal to play an expansive, possession based system but as Štimac himself has admitted, his predecessor rarely ever had the players to do so. It is only in the last couple of years that players like Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa and Amarjit Singh Kiyam have emerged in the middle of the park. They allow India to play the system that a lot of fans wish to see, but as the heavy defeats to Tajikistan and North Korea in the Intercontinental Cup show, things might get worse before they get better. Evolution dictates that they do.
The aim, as it always should be for India in World Cup qualification until we actually do it, is to reach the rarefied air of the third round. India only began entering teams into the qualification process with the 1986 World Cup and have since struggled to get to the final round/s. In its current avatar, twelve teams will slug it out in the third round for four automatic and one inter-confederation playoff spot. This is in addition to Qatar, who have already qualified by virtue of being the hosts of the 2022 World Cup.
India have a difficult yet clear task ahead of them in the second round. Only the top team from each of the eight groups and the four best runner-ups will make it to the next round. If Qatar, who will participate at this stage for Asian Cup 2023 qualification, take any of these twelve spots, an additional runner-up will be added to the third round. As it happens, the Asian champions are in India’s group and are widely expected to win it. Which leaves us with Oman, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
India have never beaten Oman in a competitive fixture, as they haven’t Qatar either, and the Gulf Cup champions are favourites to pip the Blue Tigers to second place and out of the reckoning. Too much should not be read into the 0-0 draw in December at Abu Dhabi. Preparatory games are a far cry from do-or-die battles for World Cup spots. The Afghans troubled India in the 2015 SAFF Championship and have since moved to the Central Asian Football Association for better exposure. They will pose a challenge, as will Bangladesh, whose age-group teams have developed nicely in recent years.
Realistically, India’s hopes of progressing hinge on the results against Oman. That challenge arrives first up, as the Blue Tigers take on the Reds in Guwahati tomorrow. It is rarely the case that a group gets decided on the first match-day. But, if India loses this fixture at home, it could be the case of kissing qualifying goodbye yet again.