After a disappointing Intercontinental Cup where India finished at the bottom of the table in the quadrennial football tournament at home, Coach Igor Stimac has named his list of 35 players for the forthcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. The boys in blue will begin their campaign against Oman on September 5th and continue the second round of Asian qualifiers in a round-robin format against Qatar, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who are clubbed together to compete in Group E with India. Sunil Chhetri will lead the squad and will look to top the group to advance into the final round of 2022 World Cup qualifiers and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup Final.
The forward and the captain of the Indian National team who has revolutionized Indian Football turned 35 on August 3rd and before he finally hangs his boots, Chhetri wants to get India into the top 10 echelons of Asian football. In an interview, Chhetri said, “I don’t think I will ever be content. I am somebody who is always hungry, “Whenever I do decide to hang the boots or whenever I am forced to hang my boots, I just want that my country is in the first 10 (in Asia) and stays there“. India is currently ranked 103rd in the FIFA rankings and 18th among the AFC nations.
Playing against top countries like Germany, Portugal, Brazil and Spain is a far fetched dream. But, this can only happen when the Indian football team defeats the rosters who are best in Asia first. Here are the Top 10 Asian teams (under AFC) who India should aspire to defeat in the coming days.
#10. Syria (FIFA Ranking- 87)
Syrian national football team is clubbed with China, Philippines, Maldives and Guam in Group A for the World Cup and AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. In 2018 Syria reached the fourth qualification round but have never qualified for the World Cup Finals. India faced Syria in the recently concluded Hero Intercontinental Cup where the results were drawn to 1-1 each. But Syria finished above India in the tournament and that makes Syria the first target Chhetri and boys should look to outclass.
#9 Iraq (FIFA Ranking- 77)
Addressed by their fans as ‘Lions of Mesopotamia‘ the Iraq national football team is one among the eight current AFC members to win the coveted AFC Asian Cup (2007). The war-torn nation is clubbed in Group C along with Iran, Bahrain, Hong Kong and Cambodia. The group is called the ‘group of death’ and is the toughest group among the 40 teams. They have achieved success in the Asian Games winning the Gold medal in 1982 and they have also been named as the AFC National Team of the Year twice.
#8 China PR (FIFA Ranking- 71)
The Chinese National Football Team is recognized as China PR by FIFA and the team has seen flair success in the past. They have been the runners up twice at the AFC Asian Cup and made their FIFA World Cup debut in 2002 FIFA World Cup. India last played against China in a friendly match in 2018 that ended in a draw result. The 2023 Asian Cup will be hosted by China and they are clubbed in Group A in the second round.
#7 Saudi Arabia (FIFA Ranking- 68)
Saudi Arabia is considered one of the most successful teams in Asia. They have won the Asian Cup three times (1984, 1988, and 1996), reached a joint-record six Asian Cup finals and have qualified for the World Cup on five occasions including the previous 2018 World Cup held in Russia. They have been clubbed with Uzbekistan, Yemen, Singapore and Palestine in Group D for 2022 World Cup Qualifiers and 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
#6 United Arab Emirates (FIFA Ranking- 65)
UAE has made one world cup appearance and finished third in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. In 2019 they hosted the AFC Cup and were knocked out in the semi-finals. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are considered their potential rivals. India faced UAE in the 2019 Asia Cup and lost 0-2 in the qualifying round. UAE has been placed in Group G and will face Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in the 2nd round of qualification.
#5 Qatar (FIFA Ranking- 62)
Qatar will have its debut appearance in the FIFA World Cup as they will become the first Arab nation to host the competition in 2022, therefore giving them direct qualification in the final round. They are the current Asian champions and India will face Qatar in Doha on September 10th. Qatar had a phenomenal run in the recently concluded Asia Cup and they look in prime form to showcase a powerpack performance being the host nations for the 2022 World Cup.
#4 Australia (FIFA Ranking- 46)
Australian national team is also a member of the Asian Football Confederation and they play their qualifications against the Asian teams. They won the AFC Asian cup in 2015 and have featured in the FIFA World Cup on five occasions. They have been clubbed in Group B against Chinese Taipei, Jordan, Kuwait and Nepal.
#3 Korea Republic (FIFA Ranking- 37)
South Korea represents the Korea Republic national football team and they are the most successful Asian football team, having featured in 10 FIFA World Cup tournament. They are also the only Asian team to reach the semi-final stage (2002) and in 2018 they defeated the 2014 champions, Germany in the group stage. The team is led by Spurs superstar Son Heung-min who is also the best Asian player currently. They are clubbed in Group H with Lebanon, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka.
#2 Japan (FIFA Ranking- 33)
Japan has qualified for the last 6 FIFA World Cup‘s and has advanced to the Round of 16 in three occasions. The recent being the 2018 World Cup. They have also won the AFC Asian Cup for a record number of 4 times and finished as runner up in the 2019 AFC Cup losing to Qatar in the finals. They have also featured in Copa America in 2019 and are the only Asian team to participate in the tournament. They have been clubbed in the easiest group for the 2022 qualifiers and the 2023 AFC Cup alongside Tajikistan, Myanmar, Mongolia in Group F.
#1 Iran (FIFA Ranking- 23)
Iran national football team has remained as the highest-ranked team in Asia for the longest period of time. They have qualified for the World Cup for five occasions but have failed to pass the group stage. Having won 3 Asian Cup they are undoubtedly the best Asian side that India needs to defeat to leave their footmark in the confederation. They are clubbed in the group of death against Iraq, Bahrain, Hong Kong and Cambodia in Group C.
Author’s Take: Realistically, it is the best chance for Chhetri and boys to prove their mark in the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup. If India qualifies for the third round that itself will take Indian Football to a next level. The key is to top the group or be among the top 4 runners up among the 40 teams that are divided into 8 groups.
The Indian Football team has taken positive steps in the previous years but the far fetched dream will only be achieved once the Blue tigers defeat some of Asia’s finest rosters such as Japan and South Korea on a regular basis. Giving this qualifier their best shot with some extraordinary Generation-Y talent included in the 35 member squad will be the best farewell gift for a man who has done so much for the country.