In the recently revealed 17-player Indian squad for the upcoming Hangzhou Asian Games, one name shines brightly – the seasoned striker, Sunil Chhetri. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) faced a daunting task in assembling a team that some might consider second-tier. However, the biggest question mark hangs over the team’s head coach, Igor Stimac, and his potential involvement.
The primary challenge in forming this squad was the reluctance of most clubs to release their players. Why, you ask? Well, it all boils down to a scheduling conflict between the Asian Games’ football competition and the Indian Super League (ISL), which is scheduled to commence on September 21.
After extensive and arduous negotiations, the AIFF finally unveiled a squad that retained only nine players from the original 22, with the evergreen Sunil Chhetri leading the charge. The remaining slots were filled with less seasoned players from various clubs.
Despite the hurdles, the national federation managed to piece together this team just three days before they were due to depart for China. They expressed their gratitude to the Indian Super League clubs and the Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) for their cooperation in facilitating the release of players.
However, doubts continue to linger regarding whether Igor Stimac will accompany this under-strength team to Hangzhou, as he had previously emphasized the importance of the Asian Games. This situation represents a rare instance of India sending a less-experienced football team to a major competition. The silver lining is the inclusion of Sunil Chhetri, the current face of Indian football, who recently became a father.
The Indian team is set to kick off its Asian Games journey with a match against China on September 19, followed by fixtures against Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24). The top two teams from the six groups will progress to the pre-quarterfinals, with the four highest-ranked third-placed teams also securing a spot.
It’s worth noting that the football team initially did not meet the qualifying criteria to be part of the Asian Games delegation. Nevertheless, they received clearance from the sports ministry with the promise of selecting the best possible team, which included key players such as Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan, and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
On the flip side, the ISL clubs had different plans. They were hesitant to release their players, as it meant missing three to four ISL matches. Their stance was bolstered by the fact that the Asian Games did not fall within the FIFA international match window.
The AIFF had hoped that the ISL clubs would release at least 22 players from their registered pool of 50 for the Asian Games, allowing the senior men’s team to participate in the continental showcase. Regrettably, this didn’t come to fruition.
The under-strength Indian team faces additional challenges, with only two goalkeepers instead of the usual three in a 22-member squad. This could pose problems if injuries occur during the tournament. Furthermore, the team will have to select 10 outfield players from a pool of 16, and any additional injuries could limit substitutions, forcing players to endure longer spells on the field.
Notably, Bengaluru FC, which initially had six players in the squad, released only Sunil Chhetri. In Gurpreet’s absence, the Indian goal will be guarded by either Gurmeet Singh or Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem. East Bengal, which had two players in the initial squad, didn’t have any representatives in the final team. Mumbai City FC and Mohun Bagan contributed one player each – Gurkirat Singh and Sumit Rathi, respectively.
Many of the players in the final squad have had limited playing time for their respective ISL clubs and have not been regular starters in the first XI.
In conclusion, India’s football squad for the Hangzhou Asian Games faces substantial challenges and uncertainties. Despite these obstacles, the presence of Sunil Chhetri offers a ray of hope for Indian football enthusiasts as the team braces itself to take on Asia’s best in Hangzhou.