Bhārat / India
- Capital: New Delhi / Naī Dillī
- Official Languages: Hindi, English
- Nicknames: The Blue Tigers, The Blue Tigresses
- Association: All India Football Federation (AIFF)
- FIFA Code: IND
- Best World Cup Result (Men): Qualified (1950) [Later Withdrew]
- Best World Cup Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Best Asian Cup Result (Men): Runners-Up (1964)
- Best Asian Cup Result (Women): Finalists (1979, 1983)
- Best SAFF Championship Result (Men): WINNERS (7 times)
- Best SAFF Championship Result (Women): WINNERS (5 times)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Men): 94th (February 1996)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Women): 49th (December 2013)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Men): 173rd (March 2015)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Women): 92nd (September 2009)
- Most Capped Player: Sunil Chhetri – 115 caps [as of Feb 2021]
- Top Scorer: Sunil Chhetri – 72 goals [as of Feb 2021]
The Republic of India (Bhārat Gaṇarājya) is one of the largest countries on Earth with the second-highest population of any country, and one of the cultural and economic powerhouses within Asia. Football has been played in India as early as 1890s with the Indian Football Association being founded in 1893 and but just covering the Bengal region, albeit governed by the English colonial elite. It wouldn’t be until 1937 when the current top football organisation of the AIFF was finally founded, which organised football throughout the entire country. Alas for all of India’s potential as a footballing nation, its history has been woefully unsuccessful for a country of its size. They did qualify for the 1950 World Cup but subsequently withdrew due to being unable to afford the expenses to send the team to Brazil. They then subsequently failed to enter qualification for every World Cup from 1958 until 1986, but have yet to qualify for a World Cup since returning to AFC qualification, with the only highlight being a second-placed finish in the 1964 Asian Cup (which was then an event comprising of a group of four teams).
However, it seems the fortunes of the Indian team could be on the rise as interest in the game has strengthen in the cricket-mad country. They have won the SAFF Championship on seven seperate occasions, most recently in 2015, and have qualified for two of the last three Asian Cups although not progressing beyond group stage as of yet. However they were incredibly unlucky not to progress in the 2019 edition, missing out on progression to the knockout stage through conceding a 91st minute penalty against Bahrain. Nonetheless, with the Indian Super League (India’s top tier league) improving every season both domestically and in AFC continental club competitions, and subsequently more interest being put onto the national team, it seems it’s only a matter of time before India can finally fulfil its monumental potential, and we’ll see the Blue Tigers roar into life once more!
Talking about one of the most underperforming countries in world football who seem to be finally on the pathway to fulfilling their massive potential of becoming one of Asia’s strongest teams, we interviewed the brilliant Nived Zenith. He is a superbly talented football writer who is currently the Suwon Samsung Bluewings correspondant for the excellent English-language, Korean football website K League United. To find their social media accounts, follow the links below:
Also adding his opinions on the Blue Tigers is the Indian footballer Kilp Barfungpa, a left-back who has played for a number of Indian clubs as well as the German side TuS Koblenz II and the Bhutanese side Paro FC. To find their social media accounts, follow the links below:
- Kilp’s Twitter: @kilpbarfungpa16
- Kilp’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kilpbarfungpa/
- TransferMarkt Profile: https://www.transfermarkt.co.in/kilp-barfungpa/profil/spieler/414539
Key: NZ = Nived Zenith; KB = Kilp Barfungpa
Q. Who would you say is your country’s best player and coach/manager of all-time, and the reasonings behind the choices?
NZ: I would rate Sunil Chhetri as the best ever player to have played for the Indian national team. It is not solely down to his remarkable record at the international level. Chhetri has also enjoyed longevity like no other. He is the benchmark for anyone looking to make a name in Indian football. The level of training and dedication he puts in towards football has remained unparalleled even at the age of 36. If he wanted to, he could go on for another four years and I wouldn’t be surprised if no one could tell the difference.
As far as the greatest manger is concerned, it will have to be Stephen Constantine for me. The Englishman had two separate spells in charge of the national team. Although I was not fortunate enough to observe his first spell (2002-2005) very closely, there were some really memorable times during the second (2015-2019). In addition to guiding India from 173 to 97 in the FIFA rankings, Constantine also won the SAFF Championship, the Intercontinental Cup, and secured qualification for the AFC Asian Cup in 2019. Although he resigned after failing to guide India into the knockout rounds of the Asian Cup, the 4-1 triumph over Thailand in the opening game of the tournament was one of the my favourite moments of his tenure.
KB: In my opinion, Bhaichung Bhutia is Indian’s all time greatest player because he is the player that made the sport popular within India. Like when you speak about world football, you cannot forget the likes of Pelé and Maradona, likewise with BB and Indian football. With managers and coaches, I don’t have much of an idea but I personally like Khalid Jamil for what he has achieved in the recent seasons.
Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ in terms of the national team both in the past and present?
KB: For cult heroes, I’m not really sure, maybe Bhaichung Bhutia again or even Alvito D’Cunha, a left-winger who played for East Bengal FC [and won 20 caps for India].
NZ: The cult hero of Indian football for me is I.M. Vijayan. The mercurial forward hails from my home state of Kerala, which is at the southern tip of India. Like many others, even I believe he was the most technically gifted player India ever produced. IMV made everything look easy. Even though I did not belong to the generation that witnessed his magic live from stadiums, I have heard many, many stories and trawled on footage to try and get to know the genius better. Vijayan played for 17 years with the Indian national team and no one has ever come close to replicating the kind of magic that he weaved with the ball at his feet. Obviously, it connects a lot more when he is from your region, a true cult hero for everyone.
Q. Of the current team, who would you say is the best player from India currently?
NZ: I would go with Sunil Chhetri. In terms of potential there are quite a few like Ashique Kuruniyan, Akash Mishra and Brandon Fernandes. But it is hard to look beyond Chhetri even when he is 36. Such has been his commitment and hunger to work hard, and get better, with every passing year. It will take some doing for the new crop of players to maintain the kind of longevity he enjoyed at the highest level.
KB: For the last 6-7 years, Sunil Chhetri has been our country’s best player by a huge margin.
Q. How would you describe the current state/performance of the national team?
KB: In recent years we have done relatively well, improving a lot on and off the field. We brought in a big name coach in Igor Štimac [former Hajduk Split, Derby County and West Ham United player, who also played 53 times for Croatia] and we are also moving up the FIFA world rankings slowly, and performed really well in the AFC Asian Cup in 2019
NZ: Performances have improved. The goalless draws away from home to China, and the Asian champions Qatar, prove that this team is capable of grinding out results. Everyone knows it cannot be an overnight success story with a country like India. But without the shadow of a doubt, the right steps are being taken and there is certainly more than just a glimmer of hope with respect to India making their presence felt in the continental stage sooner rather than later.
Q. Are there any Indian players who you think we should be focusing on for the future – who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent from the country?
NZ: Quite a few of them have emerged over the last couple of seasons in Indian football. Akash Mishra at Hyderabad FC is one exciting player. Despite only making his debut in the top-flight this season, the 19-year-old left-back has been a revelation. It looks likely that he will earn his maiden call-up to the national team in a couple of months. India could benefit massively with someone like Akash in his natural role. Honourable mentions to the likes of Lalengmawia (Apuia), Ashique Kuruniyan and Rahul KP. All of them have also been spectacular. Like I said, I could even name a few more. There are a lot of hopes riding on the up and coming generation, they are benefitting massively from the exposure of the Indian Super League.
KB: I really like Suresh Wangjam [a 20 year-old defensive midfielder] who had a great season last year for his club Bengaluru FC, and has continiued his form into this season by doing well in the starting line-up, but unfortunately his team is underperforming in the Indian Super League.
Q. Looking at India’s international history, what would you say has been the best game, result or performance for the national team in your opinion?
KB: For me, winning 4-1 against Thailand in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup was one of the best national team performances I have experienced.
NZ: I would like to call the goalless draw against Qatar [in the 2022 World Cup qualifying] as the best result for the team yet. At least as far as I’ve witnessed it would have to be that. In many ways, Qatar is the ideal reference for a team like India. Their rise has been meteoric and it culminated with the side being crowned Asian Champions in 2019. For India to go to Qatar and hold them to a draw was something not many people would have confidently predicted. Irrespective of what the match stats suggest, the impact of that result on Indian football was massive.
As far as best performance is concerned, the 4-1 win over Thailand in the group stages of the AFC Asian Cup in 2019 comes to mind quickly. That was an outstanding way to begin the tournament. There are a few more displays that come to mind especially in the SAFF Championship, but the AFC Asian Cup was a bigger stage and is right up there in terms of the magnitude.
Q. Likewise, is there a performance or result which is regarded as the team’s lowest point?
NZ: There was a serious decline somewhere in the 1970s, but I can’t remember any result from my memory that haunted me. It was disappointing to share points with Bangladesh and Afghanistan after the commendable draw with Qatar in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in 2019. But I wouldn’t necessarily consider it the lowest point, yes it has made qualification a bit complicated. However, there is still a long way to go for this team in the future and we are all in to back them throughout.
KB: There are plenty of low points to choose from, but personally for me, losing to either Bangladesh or Nepal is always a bitter feeling.
Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the Indian national team?
KB: The worst thing is that we are such a huge country with potential but we are not in that position within the world football scene and that football is a second sport in our country. The best, as if now, is yet to come…
NZ: The craze surrounding cricket is very unfair to other sports in India. Football has managed to attract audiences with the introduction of Indian Super League and the commercialisation. There are bigger names coming down to India and the clubs have become more professional. Places like Kolkata, Kerala, Goa and the NorthEast have always been hotbeds of football in the country, but on the larger scheme of things, cricket still dominates all the news columns and discussions.
But the best thing about being a fan of the national team is that we love this fight. Our love for football has always been the same and we are willing to be a part of this revolution. From the temples of the mighty to the slums, it is played everywhere and there is no bigger religion than it on the planet. The journey of experiencing the national team truly waking up and punching above their weight is also what we live for. Sport loves an underdog story, always.
Q. Have the fans adopted some kind of unofficial anthem to sing along to before/during/after matches?
NZ: Yes, but this culture was not very prevalent in the early days. Fan groups have now taken chants seriously and almost all the clubs have specific chants for their players as well.
KB: I have no idea to be honest, but I have seen the ‘Viking Clap‘ after the matches which is nice but not original.
Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the whole time of the national team?
KB: It would have to be our Nike kit that was worn in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.
NZ: Unfortunately, nothing from the past. I like the new kit and I’m planning to get one soon though.
Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Indian national team?
NZ: I’m really hopeful. The wheels are in motion for India to improve drastically. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is also taking steps to try and host tournaments like the AFC Champions League and the Asian Cup. All of it can only help Indian football grow and get bigger in the future. There is genuine interest from the audiences here as well, the revolution is well and truly coming.
KB: Hopefully we can become one of the top five teams in the Asia and be considered a threat for the AFC Asian Cup.
A massive बहुत बहुत धन्यवाद to Nived and Kilp for answering our questions on the Blue Tigers. Remember you can find their excellent social media accounts in the links at the top of the blogpage.
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