Figure 1 Football is beginning to win over the country
There is no doubt that cricket is India’s national sport. You can see the way the public gets behind the team for any test, ODI, or T20 match – and in the reaction to losses such as the recent World Cup defeat to Australia. But there is another sport that is beginning to capture the hearts of the people.
For a country with the largest population in the world, India has never featured at the top level of football. But things are changing. The domestic league situation is beginning to sort itself out and there has been steady improvement by the national side as well. The Blue Tigers will be featuring in the Bovada live betting markets for next year’s AFC Cup, for example.
But why has it taken so long for India to be recognized on the global stage when it comes to football? We are going to take a look at the history of the game in the country and explain just how a sleeping giant is slowly emerging from its slumber.
A Brief History
There is a long history of football being played in India, thanks in part to the British influence before independence. The first international game can be traced back to 1938 but the first after independence came at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, when India lost 2-1 to France. The players famously didn’t wear socks or boots, which is the reason why FIFA banned the team a year later.
The next 10 to 15 years are considered the golden era of Indian football. The national team qualified for the 1950 FIFA World Cup (but withdrew before playing a game) and also made it to the semifinals of the Olympics, won the Asian Games twice, and finished runners-up at the 1964 Asian Cup.
But then came a decline that lasted until virtually the end of the 20th century. There was some success in the South Asian Football Federation Championship, a tournament that began in the 1990s, but nothing on a wider, more global scale. In 2011, India qualified for the Asian Cup for the first time in 27 years and continued to have success at the SAFF Championship. The U-23 side took over duties for the Olympics and Asian Games.
There still weren’t improved performances and talent brought through by India until Igor Stimać was appointed head coach of the Blue Tigers in 2019. The former Croatian international brought a new tactical approach to the team, putting emphasis on possession and a more disciplined defense.
Although Stimać’s first task to qualify for the 2022 World Cup ended in failure, India did finish a creditable third in its group in the second round. His continued prioritization of player development has improved the squad still further and is now beginning to reap rewards.
India has now won the last two editions of the SAFF Championship under Stimać’s stewardship. But it was a combination of good fortune and improved play that saw the Blue Tigers qualify for their second consecutive Asian Cup – the first time that had ever happened.
India automatically progressed to the third round of qualifying thanks to that performance in World Cup qualifying. But because of the COVID pandemic, all games were played in India and the team used home advantage to qualify ahead of Afghanistan, Hong Kong, and Cambodia.
This year alone, India has won the Intercontinental Cup as well as the SAFF Championship. After years of watching close neighbors forging ahead in the football world, India is now slowly becoming one of the powers of the region. A good performance at the Asian Cup, to be held in Qatar at the beginning of 2024, will boost confidence still further.
World Cup Dreams
Although Igor Stimać has stressed the need to concentrate on becoming a regional powerhouse and the development of players as most important, the dream of anyone connected to the India national team is for it to qualify for a World Cup finals. After coming so close in 1950, India has not been part of that conversation for over 70 years.
Now seeded in the top 18 in Asia, India gained a more favorable draw for the World Cup qualifying second round and was grouped with Qatar, Kuwait and Afghanistan. With eight places now allocated to Asia for the 2026 World Cup, this is India’s best chance for decades.
Qualification started well, with a victory away in Kuwait. There is still a long way to go, of course, but two nations from the group automatically qualify for the next round, with further playoff chances after that. With further development and improvement, there is new hope that India could do well
Figure 2 Qualifying for the World Cup would be a game changer for India
The Future for India
With more money being invested in the domestic competitions, Igor Stimać is now selecting players almost wholly from the Indian Super League. Although there is the opportunity for players from the Indian diaspora to make it into the squad, having easy access to everyone between international matches has to be of benefit.
With new grassroots football programs receiving more investment, the commitment to developing younger players can only pay off in the years to come. That should mean that the national team improves even more before the end of the qualifying stages for the 2026 World Cup.
With more chance than ever for India to make it to the finals and a head coach who seems happy in his role, the future does look bright for India. Hopefully, it will soon become the kind of regional superpower that a country the size of India should be. From there, India could become one of the real footballing success stories of the 21st century.