Indian football’s journey in the Asian Games has witnessed a transformation from prominence to relative obscurity. The roots of India’s footballing glory in the tournament can be traced back to its remarkable victory in the inaugural edition held in 1951 in New Delhi.
It was on the Asian Games stage that India showcased its footballing prowess, emulating this feat again in Jakarta in 1962 and securing a bronze medal in Bangkok in 1970. These three medals represented the achievements of three generations of footballers who thrived under the legacy and infrastructure established by the British during their colonial rule.
However, the subsequent 50 years witnessed a steady decline, marked by mismanagement and mediocrity. Despite initial success, India’s administrators failed to sustain the developmental initiatives required to keep pace with the global progress of the sport.
Following the early period of glory, the peak of India’s performance was a sixth-place finish when it hosted the Asian Games again in 1982. In the years that followed, India’s performance graph continued to dip, and when the Asian Games became an event for under-23 national teams, like the Olympics, in 2002, India’s performance deteriorated further.
The nadir came in 2014 when India finished 26th in Incheon, and the nation opted not to participate in the subsequent edition in Jakarta in 2018. The Indian Sports Ministry’s reluctance to send teams without medal prospects led to a concerted effort by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to secure the participation of both the men’s and women’s national teams in Hangzhou.
The Asian Games participation is deemed important in the country’s preparation for the Asian Cup’s main round, where India is looking to progress beyond the group league stage for the first time in decades.
The green light from the Sports Ministry did not really open up the gates for the return of the Indian men to Asian Games football. The brief spell of bonhomie, following the Central Government’s “consent”, was soon replaced by a period of chaos as the clubs refused to release the players selected in the squad for the Asiad.
With the Indian Super League, the country’s top football division, coinciding with the Asian Games schedule, the clubs cited the FIFA regulations (which do not make it mandatory for clubs to release players for tournaments – like Asian Games – falling outside the international window) in holding back their players.
This forced the national federation to bring in many changes and announce a fresh squad accommodating the players released by their clubs. The club versus country debate added a new chapter to this long-standing controversy and the AIFF was criticised by the clubs for improper planning.
The clubs argued that the national federation seemed to overlook the Asian Games while planning the national calendar and could have easily delayed the start of the ISL to ensure that it gets the best of the selection.
National coach Igor Stimac, who had been one of the major votaries of Asian Games participation, remains cautiously optimistic about his team’s prospects, acknowledging the unique nature of the under-23 competition.
“It is difficult to say because you don’t have much information about all the teams you’re going to face there. I think we are the only team that hasn’t played a single game with the under-23s in the last two years.
“How much we can do in a short period of time is a huge question. Obviously, we do have strong under-23 players, who are already a huge part of the senior national team, and it should help us,” Stimac said.
“We are going to face the biggest opponent in our group, China, in the opening game. And 48 hours later, we have to play the next opponent (Bangladesh), which is hugely surprising. We’re going to put all our efforts into the opening game and do our best to beat China to make our lives easier,” he added.
Under the given circumstances, India’s performance will depend a lot on the inspirational presence of the nonpareil Sunil Chhetri. The Indian captain, who was released by Bengaluru FC, will be expected to bring together the likes of Amarjit Kiyam, Rahul KP, Rahim Ali and Aniket Jadhav to help the team put its best in the Asian Games.
Central defenders Sandesh Jhingan and Chinglensana Singh are a couple of seniors aiding Chhetri in the battle.
“It is a wonderful development that some experienced players have been added to the Asian Games squad, who will certainly help the cause of the team. I am thankful to FSDL (which runs the ISL) and AIFF for making it happen. Whoever represents India, together we will be honoured to defend the flag,” Stimac said after the new squad was pieced together.
The group stage of the men’s competition features six groups, five with four teams each and one with three. The top two teams from each group and the four best third-placed teams from all groups will advance to the round of 16.
The women’s competition includes 17 senior national teams divided into five groups. India’s women’s team, currently ranked 61st (Asia ranking — 11), faces a challenging Group B with higher-ranked opponents like Chinese Taipei (ranked 37) and Thailand (ranked 44).
Participation in the Hangzhou Asian Games offers an opportunity for India to reestablish itself on the continental football stage.
Indian men’s team for Asian Games:
Goalkeepers: Gurmeet Singh, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, Vishal Yadav
Defenders: Sumit Rathi, Narender Gahlot, Deepak Tangri, Sandesh Jhingan, Chinglensana Singh, Lalchungnunga.
Midfielders: Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Samuel James Lyngdoh, Rahul KP, Abdul Rabeeh, Ayush Dev Chhetri, Bryce Miranda, Azfar Noorani, Vincy Barretto.
Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Rahim Ali, Rohit Danu, Gurkirat Singh, Aniket Jadhav
Head coach: Igor Stimac.
Indian Women’s Football Squad for Asian Games:
Goalkeepers: Shreya Hooda, Sowmiya Narayanasamy, Panthoi Chanu.
Defenders: Ashalata Devi, Sweety Devi, Ritu Rani, Dalima Chhibber, Astam Oraon, Sanju, Ranjana Chanu.
Midfielders: Sangita Basfore, Priyangka Devi, Indumathi Kathiresan, Anju Tamang, Soumya Guguloth, Dangmei Grace.
Forwards: Pyari Xaxa, Jyoti, Renu, Bala Devi, Manisha, Sandhiya Ranganathan.
Head Coach: Thomas Dennerby.
Indian men’s football team schedule for Asian Games:
September 19: China vs India – (17:00 IST, Hangzhou)
September 21: India vs Bangladesh (13:30 IST, Xiaoshan)
September 24: Myanmar vs India (17:00 IST, Xiaoshan)
September 27 or 28: Men’s Round of 16 (If India qualifies)
October 1: Men’s Quarterfinal (If India qualifies)
October 4: Men’s Semifinal (If India qualifies)
October 7: Men’s Gold/Bronze medal match (If India qualifies)
Indian women’s football team schedule for Asian Games:
September 21: Chinese Taipei vs India – Women’s Group B (17:00 IST, Wenzhou)
September 24: India vs Thailand – Women’s Group B (13:30 IST, Wenzhou)
September 30: Women’s Quarterfinal (If India qualifies)
October 3: Women’s Semifinal (If India qualifies)
October 6: Women’s Gold/Bronze medal match (If India qualifies)