A Proud Moment For Indian Football As India Qualify For The AFC Asian Cup 2023 In Style

A Proud Moment For Indian Football As India Qualify For The AFC Asian Cup 2023 In Style

Road To The Qualifiers

Coming into the three significant games to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup, Indian football found itself immersed in uncertainty and chaos. The sacking of the former AIFF President was followed by the intervention of the Supreme Court as the federation was without a president.

Indian football fans were further left in dismay when FIFA were potentially going to ban Indian football, which would have canceled the qualifying games. The ban would have also impacted the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, as well which India are hosting in October.

However, the AIFF now have a window of a few months to conduct elections and elect their new president. With fans extremely unhappy & nervy about the situation, the pressure on the Indian team for the qualifiers began to mount considerably.

India played a friendly game against Jordan to prepare for the main qualifier and the last thing fans wanted to see was a poor performance and a defeat before those three vital matches.

India’s Excellent Display In The AFC Qualifiers

India’s first game was probably the easiest one as compared to the two games after facing the Cambodians. The game against Cambodia was a game India were expected to win quite comfortably, and so they did. However, India have performed rather poorly against weaker teams under Igor Stimac in the past.

As a result, fans began to doubt Stimac’s selection policies and tactics, and there was a genuine feeling of nervousness before the game against Cambodia as fans didn’t know what they were going to get from the Indian team manager.

However, the lineup picked by Stimac in all three games was excellent, and his decision-making regarding the substitutions was also pivotal. Considering his unexpected team selections and formations in the past, Stimac’s consistency was a masterstroke and surprisingly on point during the qualifiers.

The Dramatic Win Against Afghanistan

India won the first game quite easily, but the harder challenges were yet to come. Afghanistan came next; a team against whom India dropped points twice in the World Cup qualifiers. This game gave the Indian fans much to expect given the importance of the game and also due to the recent history of this fixture.

The atmosphere before the game was tense as India don’t have an encouraging record against Afghanistan under Stimac. Also, Afghanistan are a much superior side to Cambodia which added another element to the mood inside the Salt Lake Stadium.

But as it contrived to unfold, the game against Afghanistan will live forever in the hearts of Indian football fans. India dominated both halves and created enough chances, but the finishing was off. The second half kicked off at 0-0, and India again created some good chances but failed to take advantage of those openings.

India finally got their breakthrough from their captain, leader, legend, Sunil Chettri; A brilliantly executed free-kick by Chettri gave India the lead in the 86th minute.

The whole Salt Lake stadium erupted and the nerves turned to unbridled joy as the pressure to win this game, in particular, was huge. However, an incredible equalizer from Afghanistan two minutes later turned the burgeoning mood to dread amongst the fans and the players on the pitch. It was an easily avoidable goal as Zubayr Amiri made a simple and unmarked run towards the near post and headed in the equalizer.

Just after the equalizer, both Chettri and Manvir were substituted. This came as a massive surprise for all those watching as they both were two of India’s most likely goal scorers. It felt like the game was ending in a draw, and then the most amazing ending took place at the historic Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.

India were on the attack, with the Indian players desperate to get that late winner. Ashique Kuruniyan got the ball just outside the box and went past an Afghanistan defender astutely before playing a world-class pass into Abdul Sahal Samad’s path, whose finish saw the entire Salt Lake Stadium erupt like a molotov cocktail.

After the win against Afghanistan, Stimac said, “I will enjoy with my boys because of these two victories. I want to qualify for the Asian Cup final stages. I’m proud of my boys, they did everything we asked them to do and we fought with honour and deserved to win.”

“We are called Blue Tigers. Today we played like Blue Tigers. We need to keep being tigers on the pitch. That’s the way we are heading to. Going out, enjoying the football and fighting for your country with pride and honour.”

With Sahal scoring that late winner, Stimac praised the young players saying, “In the last few years, I’m getting tired to explain to everyone that good football doesn’t come overnight. It is a process that will take time. We have youngsters that can make us proud but we must be patient. We need to undertake that process of work in football is a lengthy process.”

Stimac also revealed details about the conversation he had with Sahal and said, “I told Sahal before the SAFF Cup final that sometimes one minute on the pitch can work better for you than 1,000. It depends on how you organize your time. I asked him to score if he got the opportunity late in the game as he did today. I need Sahal to rationalize his moves. He has so much quality, he can run he can sprint, but 50% of those are not effective.”

Indian Win Their Group

With India and Hong Kong meeting for their final game, it felt like a cup final, with both teams tied up on six points at the top of the group. Hong Kong had the better goal difference, so India had to win the game to qualify.

However, a few hours before the match, it was confirmed that India and Hong Kong would qualify regardless of the result. One of India and Hong Kong were going to qualify as the best second-placed side among all the groups. This was relieving news for the Indian football fanbase as the expectation levels for this game dropped massively.

The fans still wanted to see their team qualify for the competition with a 100% win record in the group. Despite the far lesser expectation and tension, the Indian team played a fantastic game and defeated Hong Kong 4-0.

India opened the scoring in the second minute when Anwar Ali scored from a corner. Sunil Chettri scored India’s second goal just before halftime as the team went into the dressing on a two-goal cushion.

Indian football team celebrating after the 4-0 win against Hong Kong.


India then scored another two goals in the last eight minutes of the game, with Ishan Pandita’s sublime finish confirming a four-goal lead for India. Watching Ishan Pandita get on the scoresheet was a moment of vindication for his touted potential as he is one of the best young players and a potential successor to Sunil Chettri.

After two years of constant criticism from the Indian fans, Stimac was eager to prove a point. He said after the win against Hong Kong, “The motivation of the team was Asian Cup qualification and proving those people wrong who thought we aren’t good enough. I had a point to prove too.”

“I came here with a big CV and experience and then put myself in a position where some started doubting me. I put myself at risk. It’s easy to be a coach for Arsenal and Manchester City with those players. But to come here and reconstruct the team with expectations from everyone, and teach these boys to do something in 5-6 days! It’s a matter of perspective.”


India came into the qualifiers as an underperforming and out-of-form side, with the fans extremely disappointed with Igor Stimac. However, after watching India’s domination in all three games and Stimac’s excellent decision-making throughout, it was a far broader victorious moment for Indian football as a whole.

Indian team celebrating with the huge crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium as the fans are enjoying the thunderclaps with their heroes.

It looks like Stimac has finally found the right formula to get the best out of India’s talented young players. The fans will have high expectations going into next year’s AFC Asian Cup. The final venue for the tournament is not yet confirmed, with Japan and Thailand both in contention to host the tournament.

But as Indian football fans have been chanting throughout the qualifiers, “Asia, we are coming!”.

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