Every four-years, world’s top footballing nations fight it out for the most prestigious sporting trophy of the planet – Football World Cup. But the actual fight starts much earlier – three years before the quadrennial event. Except for the host nation, remaining 31 World Cup spots are filled through long, multi-round qualification matches. Even the defending champions are required to participate in these qualification matches. The fight for a spot in the World Cup is so tough that countries like four-times World Cup champions Italy and three-times runners-up Netherlands failed to make to the final-32 at Russia World Cup 2018. Qualifying for the World Cup is itself a herculean task and every country’s dream. And for countries like India – which is yet to qualify for a World Cup spot – the dream of course seems too big.
The fight for the prestigious spot at next FIFA World Cup has already started among the 211 member countries of FIFA. These matches are being held by six FIFA Confederations. In Asia region, the qualifying matches are held by AFC – Asian Football Confederation. First round matches were held between the 12 bottom ranked teams in Asia and six of them have advanced to the second round. India was not there among the bottom ranked teams, and hence is starting its campaign straight from the second round. 40 teams are divided into eight groups of five teams each. India is placed in Group – E, along with teams of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Oman and Qatar, the host for the next World Cup 2022.
India is starting its campaign against Oman at Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, Guwahati on September 5. Like India, Oman too has never played in a World Cup. However, 87th ranked Oman, which once had as high as 50th position in FIFA rankings, has played four out of last five Asian Cups. The two teams have met twice in World Cup Qualifiers earlier – in 2015. Unfortunately, India lost on both the occasions. However, when the two teams met last December, it was a goalless draw.
Oman’s 31-year-old Faiz Al-Rushaidi is a strong Goalkeeper. Left winger Saad Al-Mukhaini’s experience would be a challenge to the inexperienced Indian wingers. With 169 matches experience, midfielder Ahmed Mubarak Al-Mahajiri would be the playmaker along with Ibrahim Saleh. Forwards Khalid Al-Hajri and Mohammed Al-Ghassini will be testing Indian defense and the goalkeeper. Vast experience of Dutch Coach Erwin Koeman – who was part of Euro-88 Champion Dutch team and Pre-Quarterfinalist of Italia ’90 – will be an added advantage for the team.
With FIFA ranking of 103, India, under the new Croatian Coach Igor Stimac – who was part of Euro ’96 and World Cup ’98 Croatian team – is raring to go with an eclectic mix of experience and youth. Captain Sunil Chhetri, with 111 matches and 71 International goals – second leading goal scorer in the World among active players, behind only Christiano Ronaldo – provides much strength to the team with his finishing abilities and experience. Although the absence of 18-year old Amarjit Singh Kiyam would be felt in the midfield, but the likes of 22-year-old Sahal Abdul Samad and 21-year-old Anirudh Thapa would take care of the things. In his 5 appearances so far, Sahal has won hearts of one and all with his attacking midfield and excellent dribbling abilities. Udanta Singh and Lalianzuala Chhangte will take care of winger positions. Sandesh Jhingan, Narender Gahlot, Rahul Bheke and Pritam Kotal are expected to form the defense line. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is regarded as one of the best goalkeepers India has ever produced.
Indian team is expected to play in its familiar 4-4-2 formation whereas Oman is expected to place in 4-2-3-1 formation. There is no doubt that Oman is a tough opponent and has a better team on paper. But Indian team is full of young enthusiasm and the home crowd support will act as the 12th man. The Guwahati stadium has been India’s favourite ground in the recent past where Blue Tigers won comprehensively against Nepal and Laos by 2-0 and 6-1 respectively. Hope Blue Tigers will start their World Cup Qualifiers campaign on a positive note.