There was a lot of negativity around the Indian national team before and during the 2013 SAFF Championship. That will continue after the tournament also as India failed to defend their title, losing to Afghanistan for the very first time.
Following the failure to qualify for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, which also ended India’s hopes of playing in the 2015 Asian Cup, a runners-up finish in a competition that they had won a record six times out of the previous nine editions isn’t good enough. Of course, winning the SAFF Championship also would have been considered a consolation as historically India have been the dominant force in this tournament.
So how exactly does one rate India’s showing at SAFF 2013? Well, for starters, India’s performances lacked consistency as they were unconvincing in the group stage against lower-ranked teams like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, who also defeated Wim Koevermans’s side.
It was only in the semi-finals that India raised their game and in the final produced an even better display but couldn’t take their chances. Captain Sunil Chhetri in particular was very disappointing as his finishing was woeful and he managed just one goal in more than 300 minutes of action.
What was noticeable in the knockout stages was the fact that teams started to underestimate India. Although it backfired for Maldives, Afghanistan said the right things off the field and did the right things on it.
Many sections of the media will rank India’s defeat to Afghanistan as a new low but in truth it shouldn’t really be something disgraceful. Coming into the tournament, Afghanistan was the highest ranked team in sub-continent. They were placed six spots above India in the FIFA Rankings and that margin could even increase in the latest release, scheduled later today.
Afghanistan is also the only South Asian team to qualify for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup via the qualifiers and following the win over India, their record in this calendar year reads; Played: 10; Won: 7; Drawn: 2; Lost: 1. They have been highly consistent and as a football nation are on the up. Much of it is down to their several foreign-based and foreign-born players. That is a luxury India can’t have as laws don’t permit dual citizenship. So by the next SAFF edition in 2015, the gap between India and Afghanistan in terms of technicality and FIFA Ranking could increase.
The Indian national team has gone backwards since the 2011 Asian Cup and is currently a work in progress. The problems started with the untimely departure of Bob Houghton and now Koevermans is not only having to deal with an inexperienced group of players but also off the field issues like the deadlock between AIFF’s commercial partners IMG-Reliance and I-League clubs, which has resulted in seven of this SAFF 2013 squad being without an I-League team.
Koevermans pointed that out after the final and Indian football fans would be hoping that the AIFF takes this matter seriously and also keeps arranging regular international matches so that the national team doesn’t become a complete sideshow until the next international tournament.
Afghanistan coach Yousef Kargar stated after the game that India’s time as South Asia’s dominant force was over. That might sound arrogant but could very well turn out to be true if the right steps are not taken to improve the Indian national team.
For now though, Afghanistan have proved that they are the best in South Asia and worthy winners of SAFF 2013. So, Indian football fans should not feel ashamed but accept the facts and congratulate Afghanistan as the war-torn nation have created their own history and look well placed to take this forward.
Keep your fingers crossed about the Indian national team though.