Stimac’s Folly – India’s Darkest Hour in WC Qualifiers


India’s men’s national football team received a massive setback in their 2026 World Cup Qualifying campaign. They were stunned by a depleted Afghanistan in the return leg of the group-stage match at Guwahati. The Men in Blue opened the scoring in the first half as Chhetri converted from the penalty spot in what was his 150th appearance for India. However, the Afghans managed to score two goals in the second half, completing a famous win over India for the second time in their history, making India’s road to the next round very challenging.

India vs Afghanistan
The AIFF honored Sunil Chhetri on his 150th appearance for India

Stimac’s men came into this game in desperate need of a win to ensure a comfortable qualification to the next round of qualifiers. Despite the goalless draw away to Afghanistan last week, India was still in a position of relative comfort in the second round of World Cup qualifiers with a couple of home games in hand, starting with this one. Stimac continued to go with his preferred 4-2-3-1 shape but introduced three changes from the previous clash between the two sides.

Akash Mishra and Lallianzuala Chhangte made way for Subhasish Bose and Liston Colaco. Brandon Fernandes was preferred for Vikram Partap to get the much-needed control and creativity missing from their last match. India’s legend Sunil Chhetri making his 150th appearance for the national team also added to the occasion’s importance.

Ashley Westwood on the other hand did not make any changes in the starting lineup from the previous game, but still had a very crisis-struck squad at his helm owing to the ongoing boycott of the national team over alleged corruption within the board. The Afghans were last in the group and needed the three points to maintain their slim chances of going to the next round.

India was the quickest to get off the blocks as in the 3rd minute, Chhetri met a ball from Brandon and hit the post, only for Manvir Singh to blast the ball over the net on the rebound, missing a golden chance to put his team ahead. However, just four minutes later, Afghanistan’s captain Zohaib Islam Amiri met a brilliant corner with his header at the near post, forcing a superb save from Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

To the surprise of most home fans, the game was quite evenly matched after this. Even though the Blue Tigers had the majority of possession, Afghanistan used the ball more effectively to create half-chances in the first half. India looked far from threatening from set-pieces as Brandon failed to replicate his usual expertise with the free-kicks and corner kicks.

India vs Afghanistan
Sunil Chhetri in action against Afghanistan

in the 36th minute, Afghan captain Amiri intercepted Manvir Singh’s cross into the box with his hand, almost intentionally, to concede a clear-cut penalty. Sunil Chhetri made no mistake as he slotted the ball past Azizi in the bottom left corner in his vintage style as India took the lead in the 37th minute of the game. This was the 94th goal for Sunil Chhetri as he continued to extend his record of most goals by an Indian player and remained the third-highest active goalscorer behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. This goal separated both sides as the first half came to a close.

Westwood’s men looked like a different team in the second half from the word go as both Skandari and Akbari attempted shots on goal in the first few minutes of the game, building pressure on the Indian defense as the Blue Tigers preferred to soak in the pressure and play on the counter. India, even after scoring the first goal, was far from convincing in terms of their gameplay. They struggled to create chances and were either playing passes in their half which was followed by hitting long balls to find the wingers in the attacking third.

Afghanistan on the other hand looked much more composed and productive in possession, often combining with short passes in the attacking third and midfield, trying to create and break India’s defence. Sunil Chhetri looked visibly furious due to the poor service he was getting throughout the game.

In the 70th minute, Afghanistan got a well-deserved equalizer on the counter with three forwards in the final third. Rahmat Akbari attempted a shot from outside the box and the ball went through the legs of Rahul Bheke after a deflection to make it 1-1 with 20 minutes of regulation time left. The Men in Blue looked rattled after this goal, with the crowd also sensing a shift in the momentum as Afghanistan looked for the winner. However, India’s attack was toothless as they were only hitting long balls and crosses from the deep, which were being nullified easily by the Afghan defense, as India did not even look close to scoring a goal.

Miraculously, things got from bad to worse for India as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had a brain fade moment as he missed the ball and crashed into an Afghan forward and conceded a silly penalty in the 87th minute of the game. There was pin-drop silence in the packed Guwahati stadium as Sharif Mukhammad slotted the penalty home for his team, giving Afghanistan a shocking 2-1 lead and completing a historic comeback for his country.

India vs Afghanistan
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu gave away the penalty for Afghanistan’s second goal

With this win, Afghanistan registered their second-ever win over India and with the amount of senior team regulars they were missing, their performance over the two games deserves all the praise and credit, led by their head coach, Ashley Westwood. With 4 points in the group now, Afghanistan technically have a chance to even finish second in the group and with such a strong performance, it won’t be a surprise if they trouble other teams in the group.

On the other hand, this is a new low for the already under-performing Indian team as 2024 gets even worse for Stimac and his men. A set of fixtures from which India were expected to grab all six points, India only got one point and they only have themselves to blame for it. The fans in the stadium made their intentions and opinions very clear after booing the players and raising questions on Stimac as well.

Read: Goalless draw sees India fail to prevail over depleted Afghanistan

With just four points from their four games, it looks like India now has to get wins against not just Kuwait at home but also the current AFC Asian Cup Champions, Qatar. As it looks increasingly unlikely for India to go through to the next round of the World Cup Qualifiers, some tough questions are to be asked to the manager and some tough decisions should be made as well.

Follow IFTWC for more updates on Indian football.

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