AFC U-23 Qualifiers – Lack of Preparations to be blamed for India U-23 close exit


The India U-23 side put on a splendid account of themselves as the side finished second in Group E behind UAE, coming ever so close to qualifying for the AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan. It almost feels like deja-vu, a recurring theme in Indian football, a story of so close yet so far. From the U-16 Asian Championships in 2018, AFC Asian Cup in 2019 to the AFC U-23 qualifiers in 2021, the Indian sides came ever so close to success, which eventually eluded them in the end.

The U-23 side made a perfect start to life in Fujairah, as they stunned a highly fancied Oman side 2-1 in their first game, sending Indian football fans into dreamland. Against UAE, India yet again had a good game but were unlucky to end up on the losing side as the hosts were awarded a penalty late in the game which was converted by Abdulla Idrees and reality started to set in. India needed a win against the Kyrgyz Republic to have a realistic chance of qualifying for the main event in Uzbekistan. While the Blue Tigers kept most of the ball, it was the Kyrgyz Republic who had better chances in the game but Dheeraj was unassailable and kept the young White Falcons at bay. India went on to win 4-2 on penalties to take the second spot in the group behind UAE but failed to make the cut for the AFC U-23 Asian Cup.

While we are all proud of the achievements of the U-23 side in the qualifiers but the narrative of faltering at the final hurdle needs to change if Indian football is to realise its own promise and we discuss what can be done to change the narrative.

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The recent crop of U-23 players could very well be one of the brightest in the recent past and kudos to the AIFF and the Indian Arrows program which has gone on to give young players exposure to competitive professional football in the I-league that has gone on to hone the skills of the current U-23 players. While there is much promise, but Indian football also needs results and qualify for continental competitions if the sport is going to fulfil its promise in this country. While the U-23 side failed to qualify, we have to take into account the fact that the team got to play 0, yes exactly 0 preparatory games before their qualifier campaign. To put it into perspective, the other 3 teams in Group E, UAE, Oman and the Kyrgyz Republic each played 7, 3 and 3 matches before the start of the Qualifiers in Fujairah. Given the circumstances the fact that side managed to finish second in their group is commendable.

Igor Stimac has said this numerous times now and it seems that is the need of the hour at Indian football, a longer and a bigger league that lasts longer than the 3-4 months sprint ISL format we have in place for the development of Indian football. The road map for Indian football as designed by the AIFF in association with AFC promises a more robust league by 2024 with more teams and more matches and also with relegation and promotion rules implemented. While we have to realise we are on a journey that won’t provide us instant success but as a fan of Indian Football, who have starved for success for so long, a SAFF championship win or managing a second place in AFC U-23 Asian qualifiers is unlikely to quench that thirst. If the number of matches in the ISL can be increased so that the league runs longer is something that the AIFF will have to decide.

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We have talked about the Arrows program before which have empowered these young footballers, but the exposure that these young footballers got during the 2017 U-17 World Cup is also a contributing factor to the burst of young talent in the sport. Football is a lucrative career option for young players now with the advent of the ISL and the strong grassroots programs of the ISL sides have prompted more and more young players to pick up football as a sport. But to sustain these developments in Indian football and continue the growth there has to be a success on the international stage that will contribute more kids to pick up the sport. While The national side has a dedicated U-16, U-17 and U-19 program it lacks a U-23 program. The U-23 program seems to be non-existent a certain points with the team getting assembled only when there is a competition in that age group.

One of the things that also need to be addressed, while the other age groups till U-19 have a different setup with their own set of the coaching staff, the U-23 side is managed by Igor Stimac and his team who are also in charge of the Men’s National side. This is a problem area that AIFF should be addressing. It is very important to have a different set of people with footballing pedigree and brains to take charge of the U-23 program as this is the final stop before the National men’s team, while Stimac can operate as Technical Director or mentor for the U-23 side, it is very important that these young boys are under coaches that can mould them into better footballers for India and hand them over to Stimac and the National side.

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While the Arrows program is most definitely a silver lining for Indian football, having a league solely dedicated to the age groups program, like the U-23 league concept in England which has gone on to reap huge benefits for the clubs and the country. If the AIFF forms a league for the reserves team of the ISL clubs, not only will the young players get much-needed match practice and work under coaches who can give their dedicated attention to the development of these young players and which in the long run can work as a supply line to the senior team in the ISL and also for the National side. By 2024 with a first division and second division established, AIFF can decide to incorporate the reserves side in the second division as we see in Spanish football, while the side will be ineligible for promotion or cup competitions, but getting to play professional football on a regular basis is the call of the hour and Indian football needs to acknowledge it.

The U-23 were very impressive given the roadblocks in their preparations but it’s time for Indian football to aim for the top and not settle to play second fiddle. We were on the cusp of history if the U-23 had managed to secure the qualification, will they have created history if they were provided with all the tools to succeed? Well, we will never know the answer to that question. But instead of faltering if Indian football is to finally cross that final hurdle, things will need some shaking up and change and let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later.

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