Does India's drab draw against Afghanistan point to a deeper malaise? | Football News - Hindustan Times
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Does India's drab draw against Afghanistan point to a deeper malaise?

Mar 22, 2024 10:59 PM IST

Unless India produce a response on Tuesday or improve by June, a never-before third round in World Cup qualifiers could remain a dream

The 0-0 draw against Afghanistan was the fifth straight match in which India have failed to score. That is 127 days and 535 minutes since Manvir Singh's goal against Kuwait away on November 16. With allegations against All India Football Federation (AIFF) refusing to go away, the disjointed performance in Abha, Saudi Arabia, added to the negative energy around the sport that, as per an Ormax Sports Audience report, has a following of 305 million in India and is after cricket in terms of popularity.

India's Nikhin Pujari in action against Afghanistan(AIFF)
India's Nikhin Pujari in action against Afghanistan(AIFF)

India can make a never-before third round of the World Cup qualifiers and the 2027 Asian Cup finals, so head coach Igor Stimac is right in looking at the final goal. But unless India produce a response in Guwahati on Tuesday in the reverse fixture or improve before Kuwait visit in June, they could fall a step short.

Another poor show against Afghanistan and it would seem the gains from last year have been squandered. In September 2023, India had lost to Iraq after leading twice because of a dodgy penalty and because Brandon Fernandes's shot in the tie-breaker hit the framework. In October, India scored twice against Malaysia and were denied another goal by inept refereeing.

Soulless in Saudi Arabia after the Asian Cup ended goalless and without a point lends a long-ago feel to those performances which came after an unbeaten run of 11 games and three trophies in four months. Campaigns that included matches where India pruned big chances against them, beat Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan, both ranked higher, and Kuwait. Titles that took India into the top 100 of the FIFA rankings.

The goals against Iraq, Malaysia and Kuwait showed that against some teams, sharpness and creativity in attack weren’t restricted to home games. On Thursday evening (Friday in India), the problem resurfaced.

Vikram Pratap Singh’s inexperience can explain his lack of composure. Returning from injury, Jeakson Singh is not at his best. But if Fernandes, Liston Colaco, Lalengmawia Ralte, Sunil Chhetri, Manvir Singh, Akash Mishra and Nikhil Poojary cannot produce moments that will make the difference against a team hit by mutiny and one that is 41 places below India in FIFA rankings, it means Stimac has a big problem to fix.

So lacking in imagination, inspiration and precision in the front third were India that it beggared belief that the players were the best available. Mishra’s poor form has continued, missing was the attacking smarts Poojary showed last year, most of Ralte’s passes were to the right which meant Naorem, also hit by a slump in form and playing out of position at his club, didn’t get adequate supply and Chhetri was anonymous. Like in the Asian Cup, India had no impact from the bench. All this when the players are in the middle of the season.

A consequence of few clubs and not enough games in a season means India has a small players’ pool and when a number of them lose form at the same time, it becomes a problem. All India Football Federation (AIFF) slashing over 20 crore from its competitions budget is unlikely to help in that direction. Nor is it being mired in litigation, under scrutiny from Asian Football Confederation and under officials who don’t always deliver on their promises. “The Asian Cup and Asian Games were the two most important tournaments and AIFF really messed it up,” Bhaichung Bhutia has said.

The success of the national team is a function of the quality of competition in its top league. Foreign players have an outsized influence in ISL, as East Bengal coach Carles Cuadrat has pointed out, which means in an India shirt players must take on greater responsibility.

The AIFF’s troubles are new, the rest not so. But including provisioning for preparatory camps, a lot will have to change if there has to be progress beyond making the third round.

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