Football - Indian team
Indian team's captain Sunil Chhetri (right) had been in the thick of their qualifying campaign, scoring half of the team's tally of eight goals. Image Credit: Twitter/AIFF

Kolkata: If you care about the fortunes of Indian football team, there are good reasons to feel happy this week. The Blue Tigers, as they are called, ended their campaign of qualifying for the second Asian Cup in a row in style when they swamped Hong Kong in a tussle for the top spot in Group D here on Tuesday night.

A total of 24 teams, divided into six groups of four each, were locked in a battle for the 11 qualifying spots at stake for the next edition of the event originally scheduled in China next year but with the dates now uncertain as the hosts opted out due to resurgence of Covid-19 cases in the country. While the six group toppers, including India, went through automatically for the finals - five of the best second-placed finishers from the group stages also make the cut after the last round of qualifiers.


Now that they have made the cut, how significant is India’s qualification for the mega event ? A piece of statistic says it all - for a country whose dreams of making it to the Fifa World Cup finals always remained a distant dream, the best they could go was to make it to the Asian Cup finals only five times since its inception in 1956 - 1963, 1984, 2011,2019 and 2023. They never made the grade twice in a row despite producing some of the country’s finest footballers in the ‘80s and ‘90s before the current one, which underlines the significance of this campaign in Kolkata.

Looking back at the first two matches against lower-ranked teams, Cambodia failed to test Sunil Chhetri’s men while the pressing game of the Afghans - who were physically superior - definitely kept the hosts under pressure on Friday night for a better part of the game. It was a piece of sheer individual brilliance from the captain and a brilliant srike from super sub Sahal Abdul Samad which tilted the scales in India’s favour in front of a vociferous support from 30,000-odd supporters at the Salt Lake Stadium.

However, they turned up against Hong Kong - who had been the group leaders till Tuesday evening - secure in the thought that their qualification was already assured as one of the second best teams. This reflected in their performance on a rainy night as the hosts struck twice in each half to send with a flourish. 

There have been a series of bright spots from a young Indian outfit - thanks to Stimac’s penchant for investing in young talent - but the team’s dependance on their captain Chhetri for earning breakthrough in terms of goals has to end if India need to make a bigger impression in Asian football. Chhetri, who scored four of the team’s eight goals in all, now has 84 international goals against his name and is the third highest scorer among active footballers after the iconic Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi.

It’s all but natural that a young team will be looking forward to an inspirational captain who is a class apart, much like the previous generation of Indian footballers used to look upto Baichung Bhutia. However, he is now 37 and completed 17 years of international football last Sunday, making it a million dollar question if he would be around by the time the next Asian Cup finals is actually played.

As of date, there is no alternative host nation on record to fill in the place of China. The buzz is it could even be early 2024 when the event is finally played and Chhetri should be 39 around that time. Hence, it’s not without reason that Stimac often tells his boys to shed their over-dependance on Chhetri.

The issue is: can the Indian football team do this?