When Indian football needs as much exposure as possible before the Asian Cup 2019, the team might be deprived of the chance to participate in the Asian Games 2018 to be held in Indonesia in August.
The Indian Olympic Association issued a tentative list of 906 members for the upcoming Asian Games to be held in Jakarta. Currently the IOA has named athletes in all sports to be played in the games, but by June 30 the list will be cut down to approximately 650 athletes, with inferior sports being left out and football’s omission is more than likely.
“Right now, we have entries in all sports that will be played at the Asian Games. Of course, we won’t be sending all of them. At this stage, we have called for all potential competitors to ensure we do not miss out on any name, as was the case during the Commonwealth Games last month. By June 30, we will cut down the names to around 650,” an IOA official said.
In a bid to cut down costs, the Sports Ministry decided to limit the contingent to sports on the basis of performance. This is in adherence to the selection criteria set by the government back in 2015 in view of the over-crowded contingents being sent in previous editions. 4 years ago, when the IOA proposed a bloated list of 900+ members including 662 athletes and staff for the Incheon Asian Games, the matter was raised to the PMO but most of the athletes were cleared to go.
This time, however, the list of 906 members is definitely getting trimmed down by the officials and football seems unlikely to make the cut. The road to Indonesia will remain closed for athletes and teams which have least chance of a podium finish and football by no means is a medal prospect for India if one has to go by the records. But this is not a first in Indian football!
Back in 2014, the IOA decided not to send a football squad to Incheon owing to expenses and a dismal record at the games. However, timely intervention of AIFF President Praful Patel saw that the team did make it to the games, only to lose both their matches and crash out in the first round, finishing at 26th place among 29 participant nations. This time, the AIFF will again need to sit with the officials to clear the way for the team.
Keeping in-line with the overall trend of the sport in India, the records of both the men’s and the women’s teams hasn’t quite been a good one at the Asian Games post the golden era of the mid 20th century. The Indians clinched gold twice, in 1951 and again in 1962, which was also when the games were last held in Jakarta. A bronze medal in the 1970 Asian Games puts India at the 3rd place in the overall most successful teams in the Games. But the performances have been equally disappointing in the recent editions of the games with the U-23s. In the last 4 editions, India have only managed to go past the group stage once when they reached the Round of 16 in Guangzhou 2010. The women’s team on the other hand have only featured in two editions, and managed just 1 win out of 6 matches played.
Despite the poor records, the Indian football team desperately needs to be at the games, this time more than it ever did. There’s more to Indian football now than it used to be some years ago and ignoring the team for the games is definitely not going to be received well by the fans and players alike.
The Blue Tigers have qualified for the AFC Asian Cup which kicks off just four months after the games conclude. India have been grouped alongside hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand. Ask anyone and they’d tell how important the Asian Games 2018 could prove for the team’s preparation. The AIFF has often proved incompetent when it comes to arrange friendlies with top teams, even announcing but then canceling. It makes total sense to use whatever opportunity that comes on the way to build a better team for the 2019 tournament and platforms like the Asian Games provide just that.
With such high stakes and high-profile nature of the sport that is gaining national attention at a blistering pace, the Ministry will have a tough time deciding the fate of football at the Asian Games 2018. On one hand there’s a forgettable history, on the other hand there’s a future that depends on competitions like these.
The Indian team will get one chance to prove their point. The team will host the Intercontinental Cup 2018 from June 1 with 3 other teams including New Zealand, Chinese Taipei and Kenya. A solid performance might just give the officials enough confidence in the team to send them to Jakarta, where coach Stephen Constantine can experiment with the U-23s to find potential prospects for the Asian Cup.
While the officials’ decision to send a trimmed contingent makes sense, it also reflects the lack of vision towards the growth of sports in the country, especially team sports that are yet to explore their full potential.
When it comes to football, India is on the verge of beginning a journey towards higher grounds and to deny an opportunity that could serve as a dress-rehearsal for the Asian Cup would be both cruel, and unnecessary.