On the 26th of July, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports gave exemptions to Indian men’s and women’s football teams allowing them to participate in the upcoming Asian Games in China later this year. Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur took to Twitter to announce this great news.
Confirming that both national teams will participate in the continental event, he wrote, “Our national football teams, both Men’s and Women’s, are set to participate in the upcoming Asian Games.”
Thakur highlighted that the Ministry took into consideration the splendid performances of both the national teams in recent times and decided to give exemptions. Notably, the Ministry has relaxed the existing criteria which was hindering both the squads from qualifying for the major event.
According to the earlier qualification criteria, the Ministry only allowed those teams which ranked among the top-8 in the Asian pool. Despite, both teams falling short of this criteria, the Sports Ministry decided to relax the rules and trust the winning streak of both teams.
The Sports Minister said, “Keeping in mind their latest performances in recent times, the Ministry decided to grant the relaxation. I am sure they will put their best foot forward in the Asian Games and make our country proud.”
Good news for Indian football lovers!
Our national football teams, both Men’s and Women’s, are set to participate in the upcoming Asian Games.
The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India, has decided to relax the rules to facilitate participation of both the…
— Anurag Thakur (@ianuragthakur) July 26, 2023
With this, the Indian football teams will be participating in the Asian Games for the first time, since 2014. Apparently, last time in 2018, the same qualification criteria had barred both national sides from participating in the major continental event.
Under the Captionship of Sunil Chettri and the Croatian coach Igor Stimac, the Men’s team lifted the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Cup in short succession. The Blue Tigers have been improving their overall ranking (99th) and recently entered under 100. In the home circuit, the Indian men’s side was unbeaten for 15 matches straight and the above community post by Indian Football’s youtube channel displays the score lines of those games.
Similarly, the women’s team defeated Kyrgyzstan over two legs to win their first round of Olympic qualifiers in April.
Despite their winning run, there were question marks over their participation in the Asian Games. The uncertainty gained strength when the Sports Ministry wrote a letter to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and all the National Sports Federations (NSFs). In its letter, dated July 10, the Ministry asked the sporting bodies to clear only those teams who are in the top-8 rankings among the participating Asian teams.
The letter read, “For team events, only those sports which have achieved a ranking up to eighth among participating countries of Asia in the last year should be considered for participation in Asian Games.”
This was seen as a major setback to both the men’s and women’s national football teams as they were ranked 18th and 11th respectively in the Asian pool. Following the letter and uncertainty revolving around the teams’ participation in the Asian Games, the coach of the Indian Men’s Football team, Igor Stimac requested the Prime Minister and Sports Minister to allow the Indian side to participate in the Asian Games.
A humble appeal and sincere request to Honourable Prime Minister Sri @narendramodi ji and Hon. Sports Minister @ianuragthakur, to kindly allow our football team to participate in the Asian games 🙏🏽
We will fight for our nation’s pride and the flag! 🇮🇳
Jai Hind!#IndianFootball pic.twitter.com/wxGMY4o5TN
— Igor Štimac (@stimac_igor) July 17, 2023
But now that the Ministry has granted exemptions, both teams will like to continue their good run and lift the spirit of the game in the country to new highs.
It is important to note that the league in the Asian Games will be a U-23 tournament. As per the rules, only three players above the cut-off age (23 years) are permitted to play in a team. However, the core lineup of the Indian senior team may remain virtually unaffected. There are seven players in the main squad who were under 23 years of age.
According to insiders, it is being claimed that India may be inclined to send skipper Sunil Chhetri, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and defender Sandesh Jhingan with the side participating in the U-23 tournament at the Asian Games, scheduled to begin in September in China’s Hangzhou.
In fact, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has compiled a roster of 50 under-23 players and shared it with the respective clubs. The purpose behind this is to create an additional group of under-23 players who could be considered for participation in the AFC under-23 Asian Cup qualifiers and the King’s Cup in Thailand.
The Football growth story
While it may be premature to say that Indian football is at its highest, it has been registering an uptick in the country. The men’s team lifting back-to-back championships – SAFF and the Intercontinental Cup, is its testimony. This reflects that many positive changes in the sporting arena have started to bear fruit for the nation.
Firstly, the franchise-based sports league, Hero Indian Super League (ISL), has provided Indian players with valuable exposure, allowing them to compete alongside renowned players from the past. While many of these veteran players may have surpassed their prime, they still have a wealth of skills and knowledge to share with the younger talents. This reflects in their recent performances where they have matched the performances of higher-seeded teams in the recently concluded tournaments.
Secondly, the addition of better coaches, particularly the Croatian coach Igor Stimac has lifted the spirit of the side coming with a killer attitude to win each game. This aspect is reflected in the fact that the super animated, skin-in-the-game-kind coach Igor had picked red cards at least a couple of games for himself getting into the ‘act’ while standing on the sideline guiding the team to victory.
Thirdly, the constant appeal by the legend of the game Sunil Chettri is slowly paying dividends and more fans are lining up to the match venues or keeping a close track of the Blue Tigers’ performance and cheering them. As stated many times by the skipper, the fans getting behind the players motivates them to breach their best – the motivation factor. This is also coupled with the increasing efforts of the Indian playing side, federation, and other staff to promote their successes and not let it die down at the sidelines. An unspoken reality is that fans tend to distance themselves from games in which teams consistently deliver dismal performances.
Fourthly, the nation is slowly getting rid of politics in sports federations trampling talent at the nascent stage or letting regionalism or other biased factors come into play while selecting or promoting sportspersons.
Last but not least, the Khelo India youth games and the government’s initiatives dedicated to sportspersons, such as the Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPS) by the Union Sports Ministry, or States like Odisha elevating hockey to new heights, have played a significant role in promoting a sporting culture and nurturing young sports talent. This has resulted in widespread benefits for all sports, fostering talent development from a young age.