Veteran striker Sunil Chhetri was the only notable face in the 18-member Indian squad for the Hangzhou Asian Games as All India Football Federation (AIFF) finally managed to stich a second-rung team, but there is still a big question mark on head coach Igor Stimac accompanying the team.
Most of the clubs had shown unwillingness to release the 22 players named in the Indian squad as the Asian Games’ football competition schedule clashes with the ISL, which starts on September 21.
This could be seen as a massive loss of face for AIFF president and BJP leader Kalyan Chaubey, who had actually made hectic parleys with the ministry to send the team despite not meeting the government criteria to compete in the quadrennial extravaganza.
After prolonged parleys, the AIFF was able to announce an under-strength team made up of nine players from the original 22, including Chhetri, while the remaining were made up of inexperienced players from the clubs.
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But there are doubts whether Stimac will travel to Hangzhou at the helm of such an under-strength team. He had earlier said that the Asian Games was a priority.
Initially, the AIFF said through a press release that the team will comprise 17 players but later added Mohun Bagan’s Deepak Tangri in the squad. It could be a rare instance of India sending an under-strength football team in a major competition. The only saving grace was the inclusion of the current Indian football poster boy Chhetri, who recently became a father.
The two other senior footballers — defender Sandesh Jhingan of FC Goa and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu of Bengaluru FC — were not released by their clubs. Azfar Noorani of Mumbai Kenkre FC, which played in the 2022-23 I-League but were relegated to second division, was also named in the team. The national federation, which was able to stitch together the team just three days before its departure for China, still thanked the Indian Super League clubs and the FSDL ”for coordinating with it for the release of players”.
The Indian team is scheduled to begin its Asian Games campaign with a match against China on September 19, followed by games against Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24).
The top two teams from the six groups will make it to the pre-quarterfinals, with four best-ranked third-placed sides also qualifying.
The football team did not meet the qualifying criteria to be part of the Asian Games contingent but got clearance from the sports ministry on the prospect of the best side being picked, with Chhetri, Jhingan and number one goalkeeper Gurpreet in the squad.
But the ISL clubs had other plans as they refused to release their players as doing so would mean missing three to four matches. They are, however, not bound to release the players as the Asian Games did not fall in the FIFA international match window. A hapless AIFF was even hoping that the ISL clubs would release any 22 players from the registered 50 for the Asian Games to allow the senior men’s team to participate in the continental showpiece.
The under-strength team has just two goalkeepers, instead of three in a normal 22-member squad, and it could be problematic if there are injuries during the tournament. The team will also have to pick 10 outfield players from 16 and any further injury can lead to limiting the number of substitutions and most of the players will have to be on the field for long time.
Bengaluru FC, which had six players in the original 22, refused to release Gurpreet but agreed to Chhetri and Rohit Danu to be with the national team. In the absence of Gurpeet, the Indian goal will be manned by either Gurmeet Singh or Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem.
FC Goa also refused to let go of Jhingan while East Bengal, which had two players in the earlier squad, did not have any in the final team. Mohun Bagan have two players in Sumit Rathi and Tangri while Gurkirat Singh is the lone player from Mumbai City FC.
Many of final team players have not played too many matches for their respective ISL clubs and have not been regular first XI players.
The Indian Squad: Gurmeet Singh, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, Sumit Rathi, Narender Gahlot, Deepak Tangri, Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Samuel James, Rahul KP, Abdul Rabeeh Anjukandan, Ayush Dev Chhetri, Bryce Miranda, Azfar Noorani, Rahim Ali, Vincy Bareto, Sunil Chhetri, Rohit Danu, Gurkirat Singh, Aniket Jadhav.