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Friday, 29 March 2024
By Dhiman Sarkar

Do slouching Tigers need an OCI spine?

Sunil Chhetri fights for the ball with Afghanistan's Rahmat Akbari during the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers (Source: PTI)

On Tuesday, the men’s national team hit a low it hadn’t since away losses to Pakistan in 2005 (0-3) and Guam (0-1) in 2015. Threading three defeats, the one in Guwahati included, in three decades is Sunil Chhetri. Football is game where 11 play 11 but he is possibly the most important reason why “the kid in Andaman or Uttar Pradesh” still follow the Blue Tigers ignoring results that have been largely underwhelming.

No matter how many what-if moments you glean from the games against Afghanistan – Manvir Singh’s misses in both, Vikram Partap Singh’s header in Abha, the late penalty because the defenders were poorly positioned and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu too deep in his box (a gut-wrencher that, it could be the reason for another second-round exit) – it is difficult to mask how insipid India were.

     

Lacking creative spark

Missing was the creative spark that fetched goals on way to three tournament wins in 2023. When not corralled into corners, India played poor crosses, which may also be a pointer to better full-backs in international football; opponents who can stop wide players from using their stronger foot. There was little play through the middle and India had two shots on target in over 180 minutes of football against opponents 41 slots below them in FIFA rankings. Igor Stimac pointed out India going to the front third and playing a back-pass after the 1-2 loss in Guwahati.

What happens in one area of the pitch affects another and contributed to Afghanistan’s smash-and-grab win. With a bit of luck they could have won at home too. Afghanistan and Palestine, who beat Bangladesh 1-0, were the flavour of this round of the 2026 World Cup qualifiers in Asia. As were Ukraine in successfully sealing an Euro 2024 berth. Like Iraq in 2007, these teams have shown that while football is not matter of life and death, and certainly not more important, it can provide battle-scarred countries moments of succour.

“Why not” said Afghanistan coach Ashley Westwood when asked if they could qualify for the third round. They have a whoppingly negative goal difference to contend with but it is now a three-way battle for the second spot in Group A. In his moment of glory, Westwood also showed grace saying Stimac has done a “fantastic” job.

Igor Stimac (Source: AFP)

Pressure on Stimac

Till last November, when India beat Kuwait for their first away World Cup qualifier win in 22 years, Stimac was the fans’ favourite. On Tuesday, he was booed and abused by a section of the fans. Stimac radiates positivity, it is how he is. After apologising for the inert performance, the India head coach said a never-before third round in the World Cup qualifiers is possible; it is, beat Kuwait on June 6 and history will be made.

Assuming All India Football Federation (AIFF) don’t add to the mess by removing him, Stimac is likely to prepare a longlist of probables and get the players to work like he did before last year’s Inter-continental Cup. He said he was confident that the India squad that will show up in June will look different even though most of the players will be the same. Twice in two years, through an Asian Cup qualification and two tournament wins, Stimac has shown that long preparatory camps have got players fitter and stronger. That, in turn, have translated into more energy on the pitch.

Dip in form

Whether Stimac is getting the most out of the squad though is a valid question. From Gurpreet Singh Sandhu through Anwar Ali, Akash Mishra, Nikhil Poojary, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Mahesh Naorem, there has been a dip in form across the pitch. Lack of time means national team head coaches' focus on creating the right environment becomes as important as deciding on formations. Former India defender Gouramangi Singh is not sure if Stimac has the change room. “I am unsure about the players’ relationship with Stimac,” he told PTI clarifying that he is “not privy” to locker-room talk.

A team staff dismissed the claim. “They (the players) got ready for these games as best as they could, cutting off social media, training hard and resting well. The inability to create and take chances in international football is down to a lack of confidence. Confidence comes when you score early or when you have the energy and strength to make things difficult for the opponent,” he said.

Under Stimac, and his predecessors, it has been shown that the only way that happens is when players train together. But there has been little from AIFF to suggest that adequate breaks will be provided for international windows. With the outfield spine of ISL teams comprising foreign players, how can the national team get better then?

Well, how about the spine comprising footballers who are Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) card holders? It is impossible now because the government of India does not permit it but isn’t AIFF run by a president who is a politician with the ruling party and a former player? An AIFF task force on this was created last August and Kalyan Chaubey has spoken of reaching out to 24 such players. From “Oriundos” (Italians of Argentine origin) in 1934 World Cup through Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland sides to Brazilians Fernandinho and Elkeson playing for China this week, players representing countries they were not born in is common practice. It can be a short-term boost for India.

Mahmoud Dahoud being welcomed to the Syrian national team (Source: Syrian FA)

Such players jetting in can lead to adjustment problems – Mahmoud Dahoud leaving the Syria set-up hours before they played Myanmar on Tuesday is a case in point. Dahoud, a German who has taken Syrian citizenship, is on loan to Brighton from VfB Stuttgart. He has said the facilities need to be better. “When… the promises made are not fulfilled, you need to step back. If you’re not allowed to be a solution, at least you don’t have to be part of the problem," he said.

But ISL hasn’t helped the national team improve and neither has I-League, National Football League or the tournament-studded calendar that preceded it. So what have India got to lose by trying? Maybe, it will also save India’s overpaid footballers – not their fault that the pool is small and some clubs are rich enough to make offers they can’t refuse – from complacency.

PLAY OF THE WEEK

IN OTHER NEWS

Robinho sentence: Robinho has started serving a nine-year prison sentence in Brazil more than 10 years after he was first accused of raping a woman in Italy, reports AP. The 40-year-old Robinho left his apartment building in the beachfront city of Santos, outside Sao Paulo, in a black police car after losing a bid to remain free pending appeals. A Brazilian high has court ruled that Robinho must serve his sentence in his home nation as a result of his 2017 rape conviction in Italy. Robinho was sentenced in Italy to nine years in prison for his part in a group sexual assault in 2013 when he played for AC Milan.

Odisha FC champions: With 31 points from 12 matches, star-studded Odisha FC won their first IWL title with a 6-0 win against Kickstart FC in Bhubaneswar on Sunday. Former champions Gokulam Kerala were second and Kickstart third in the seven-team competition played home and away for the first time. Formed in 2022, Odisha FC’s women’s team romped through the competition scoring 31 goals and conceding only four. More details here.

Champions Odisha FC beat Kickstart FC 6-0 in their last game in Bhubaneswar (Source: AIFF)

China’s harsh sentence: The former president of the Chinese Football Association (CFA) has been sentenced to life in prison amid a wide-ranging crackdown on sports corruption, says AP. Chinese courts on Tuesday handed down sentences of between eight years and life in prison to officials in the Communist Party-controlled sports programmes, accusing them of taking bribes and committing other financial crimes. Chen Xuyuan, the former CFA president, received a life sentence for helping fix matches and using his various positions to commit financial crimes, state media reported. Xinhua reported that all of Chen's personal property would be confiscated and his illegal gains would be recovered and turned over to the state treasury.

Panthoi Chanu in Australia: India goalkeeper Panthoi Chanu, 26, has joined Metro United WFC who play in the South Australian Women’s National Premier League for one season. Chanu joins Jyoti Chauhan, Kiran Pisda and MK Pashmina as players who have signed at foreign clubs from trials organised by Women in Sports, the AMPL Foundation, and the Football Players’ Association of India. "I am very happy to have signed for Metro United WFC and would like to thank the club management and head coach Paul Morris for putting their trust in me,” said Chanu.

Panthoi Chanu (Source: Sportstar)

Two-year ban: 2016 Olympic gold medallist Brazilian striker Gabriel Barbosa, 27, was suspended for two years following a doping fraud investigation, reports AP. The country's Anti-Doping Sports Court of Justice voted 5-4 to punish Barbosa to April 2025. He brought attention to himself by erratic behaviour during a surprise test on April 8, 2023. Anti-doping officers who came to test players at the club training ground were largely ignored by Barbosa, who took his test hours after his teammates. Barbosa's lawyers argued his blood test at the time, which is considered a more effective test, proved he was clean, and added his unfriendly behaviour toward the officers did not mean he tricked the test.

No punishment for Acerbi: Inter Milan defender Francesco Acerbi will not face sanctions for allegedly racially abusing Napoli's Juan Jesus in a Serie A match because there wasn't enough proof, says AP. The alleged incident on March 17 was revealed when Juan Jesus told the referee Acerbi directed a racial slur at him. Acerbi has denied using the offensive word. The Italian federation’s prosecutor questioned the players and witnesses last week. He reported to the Italian league sporting judge, who also studied images from the match, as well as audio from the referee and VAR, before announcing the decision. Napoli have called the decision “astonishing” and Juan Jesus said it has left him feeling “very bitter” and “crestfallen.”

Francesco Acerbi (Source: Reuters)

MLS refs’ strike ends: Striking Major League Soccer (MLS) referees will return to work this weekend after agreeing a new seven-year labour deal, officials have said, reports AP. The Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), the union that represents officials who referee in MLS, and the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) have ratified a collective bargaining agreement that will run until 2031. MLS's elite referees have not officiated this season after talks on a new deal stalled just before the 2024 campaign kicked off.

From Chennayin to Uruguay on loan: Bijay Chhetri has completed his loan move to Colon Futbol Club, Uruguay from Chennaiyin FC. It is a loan until the end of the year with Colon Futbol Club retaining the option to make the signing permanent. He will be the second Indian after Romeo Fernandes to sign a professional contract with a Latin American club. Colon Futbol Club is a 116-year-old professional club based in Montevideo and currently competing in the Uruguayan second division.

Richarlison’s battle with depression: Brazil striker Richarlison battled with depression after the quarter-final loss to Croatia at the 2022 World Cup and considered quitting football, reports Reuters. The Tottenham Hotspur forward said in September he would seek psychological help after he was photographed crying on the bench when he was substituted during Brazil's 5-1 thrashing of Bolivia in a 2026 World Cup qualifier. “I’d just played in a World Cup, at my peak,” Richarlison, 26, told ESPN Brasil. “Even I, who seemed to be mentally strong. After the World Cup, it seemed like it all fell apart.”

Richarlison crying on the bench (Source: The Mirror)

Former England captain to retire: Former England women's captain Steph Houghton has announced she would be retiring from football at the end of the season, reports Reuters. The 35-year-old Manchester City defender, who won 121 caps for the Lionesses, will end her career at the end of the current Women's Super League campaign. Houghton began her career at Sunderland in 2002 and also represented Leeds Carnegie and Arsenal before moving to City 10 years ago. She featured in five major international tournaments after making her international debut in 2007 but last appeared for England in 2021. Houghton has also campaigned to raise funds for research into Motor Neurone Disease, with her husband Stephen Darby – the former Liverpool defender- suffering from MND.

Sven fulfils lifelong dream

Sven-Goran Eriksson (Source: This is Anfield)

It was always Sven-Goran Eriksson’s wish to manage Liverpool. He realised it last Saturday with Liverpool Legends in a charity match. Liverpool won 4-2 and Eriksson, 76, said: "That will be a huge memory in life. Absolutely beautiful. To sit on the bench for Liverpool, that's been my dream my whole life. Now it happened, and it was a beautiful day in all meanings. Last January, Eriksson said he has terminal cancer. Watch video here.

They said it

I've been fighting against this for a long time. It's exhausting because you feel like you are alone. I've made so many official complaints but no one is ever punished. More and more I'm losing my desire to play…But I'll keep fighting.”

Vinicius Jr on racism. Watch video here.

Send in your feedback to dhiman@htlive.com.

     

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Written by Dhiman Sarkar. Produced by Nirmalya Dutta.

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