It is hard to imagine that Asia’s second-largest economy hardly has a voice in international football. India has a population of more than 1.4 billion people, but it is difficult to identify 11 individuals who represent the country on the international stage.
Many people worldwide have heard names such as Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, and M.S Dhoni, but they do not know a single Indian footballer. Instead, these are elite sportspeople who have represented India’s national cricket team.
Here’s what you need to know about the history of India in the World Cup, as well as why they aren’t in the 2022 version.
Why isn’t India in the 2022 World Cup?
Being among the 34 highest-ranking Asian countries helped India avoid a first-round qualifying playoff, and they received a bye to head straight into the second round. Here, they were drawn against four other Asian countries in their group, with only the top two making it to the third round of qualifiers.
India’s Blue Tigers fell at their first hurdle as they failed to make it out of their group, which contained Oman, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and World Cup hosts Qatar.
They finished in third place with only seven points from their eight group games, having won only once and lost three times.
Nevertheless, the Blue Tigers managed to score six goals in the competition, with only one man, Sunil Chhetri, accounting for half of their tally.
Ranked 106th globally, India had the third-highest FIFA ranking in their qualification group behind Qatar and Oman.
India’s FIFA World Cup History
In failing to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, India’s Blue Tigers continued their record of having failed to be eligible for every edition of this top football competition. India came closest to reaching the FIFA World Cup in 1950 when they were forced to pull out of the competition despite having automatically qualified.
Four Asian teams (India, Philippines, Burma, and Indonesia) were due to compete for one spot in the tournament to be held in Brazil.
However, before the commencement of the qualifiers, the Philippines, Burma, and Indonesia suddenly decided to pull out of the competition, leaving India as the lone candidate.
FIFA decided to award the Asian spot to the Blue Tigers, but they decided against participating in the competition for a number of reasons. In a bid to get India to take part in the World Cup, the organisers proposed that they would cover the cost of the team’s travel.
This was to prevent the possibility of the tournament from taking place without any Asian representatives.
India has not come close to reaching the competition ever since, and is ranked a lowly 106th in the world presently. They have failed to qualify for every edition of the Mundial since 1986. Their only participation in a FIFA competition came when they hosted the U-17 FIFA World Cup in 2017.
Why isn’t football in India good enough?
Here are 4 reasons why India’s footballing scene is not up to par with other countries:
#1 Lack of high-level players
Like many national teams around them on the FIFA ranking, India cannot boast of any high-level stars who play for the country. This, in itself, is a massive reason for the apparent lack of success of the Indian national team on the international stage.
The most crucial player in India’s history is striker Sunil Chhetri. The journeyman striker has bounced all over India’s top flight, representing eight different clubs in total.
The 37-year-old currently holds the record as India’s record goalscorer with 80 goals and record appearance maker with 125 appearances.
Chhetri only ever appeared for one European club, Sporting Lisbon’s B-team, in the lower rungs of Portuguese football. This was in 2012 as a 27-year-old. His move to Sporting Lisbon B came three years after a failed move to Queen Park’s Rangers in the English Championship.
His nationality worked against him as he was denied a work permit based on India not being ranked highly enough.
Chhetri is India’s biggest name, but he does not have a single appearance in any of Europe’s top 10 leagues to his name. This goes to show the level of India’s footballers.
#2 Low-quality league setting
For their most recent international engagement against Belarus and Bahrain in March 2022, India’s squad was made up entirely of players plying their trade domestically.
Bar Mohamed Zidan and a handful of others, the Egypt team that brought African football to its knees in the 2000s, was composed mainly of players from the local league.
However, the difference between that Egypt team and this Indian team is in the quality of their leagues.
The Indian Super League, as it is known today, was created in 2013 separately from the I-League, which was the domestic league in the country since 1996.
Since the I-League and Super League era, only in the 2021 season did an Indian club reach the AFC Champions League group stage.
The quality of football in the Indian league is clearly deficient despite clubs acquiring marquee players in the early days of the Super League. Former Premier League stars like David James, Elano, Robert Pires, Luis Garcia, and Freddie Ljungberg were among the players to move to India.
For a country with such a poor performing league, India’s national team depends too much on players from the league.
This denies them the opportunity to get many quality players for the national team.
#3 Lack of high-level coaching
Former Newcastle United manager Joe Kinnear was employed to coach India’s national team between 1983 and 1984. The Irishman is the most prominent coach to have worked with the Blue Tigers to date.
Other foreign head coaches that tasted successes include Bob Houghton and Stephen Constantine, who had huge success but not enough to take them to any World Cup.
However, the Indians have opted to stick with locally-groomed coaches for the national team like with players. It is only until recently that they started shifting more to foreign head coaches. They are presently coached by Igor Stimac, a former Croatian international and coach.
In addition, India signed an agreement with Brazil in 2006 to set up a system for Indian footballers and coaches’ training. The agreement is yet to bear fruit 16 years later, with no marked improvement in Indian football since then.
#4 Lack of proper youth development in football
India’s most popular sports are cricket, hockey and kabaddi. Stars like Tendulkar, Dhoni and Kohli are national icons, with many young Indians looking up to them for their heroics.
The country’s success in cricket has spurred the younger generation to take up the sport. This, in turn, brought about increased investment in the sport.
From a very young age, children participate in scrimmages and cricket matches using quality equipment. In cricket, India dominates both age-grade and senior competitions due to available resources and competitions.
The same cannot be said of football, which has a clearly lower level of development.
Youth football in India has a structured system, with the Elite League serving as the umbrella body for several age-grade league competitions. This, however, does not translate to proper investment.
The young players cannot compete with their peers elsewhere without the right coaching and exposure.
For instance, it was seen in 2017 when they participated in the U-17 World Cup for the first time. The team lost all three of their group games and finished at the bottom of their group.
They performed worse than fellow debutants New Caledonia and Niger, who managed to pick up one and three points, respectively, from their three games.
Football is not the most important or widely-followed sport in India, and this has translated to the national team’s performance in the sport. As a result, they will not be part of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, just as they have never been part of any men’s World Cup.
Indian football’s biggest problem is its failure to produce quality footballers at every level. No Indian footballer has featured for a high-profile European club since Mohammed Salim for Celtic in 1937. Even Sunil Chhetri only managed three appearances in Portugal’s lower division.
The Indian Super League is also nothing to write home about, as Indian clubs have been poor in continental competitions.
Combining the below-average league with the lack of foreign-based players means that the national team has very few players of actual quality to work with.
Moreover, despite elaborate arrangements being in place, Indian football has failed to progress due to the popularity of the country’s cricket.
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