November 19 will mark one year of India’s abstinence from international football. It was on that night in Muscat that India last played, losing 0-1 in their Asian Cup and World Cup qualifier against Oman. Covid-19 has since disrupted the international calendar but even as countries have resumed games, India players will be readying for the seventh season of the Indian Super League (ISL) beginning in Goa on November 20.
As leagues pause for the year’s final international break between November 11-18, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Tajikistan among others will be involved in friendlies but India will end 2020 without a game. Nepal and Bangladesh are playing two games in Dhaka; UAE are hosting Tajikistan in Dubai; Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Panama and Qatar and Saudi Arabia have chosen stadia in Austria and Saudi Arabia will host Jamaica.
The earliest India will play is between March 22-30, 2021, when Qatar are scheduled to visit. According to a media release by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) on Wednesday, following an AFC Competitions Committee meeting, qualifiers for the 2023 Asian Cup and 2022 World Cup would be held in March and June. According to the media release, India will play Bangladesh and Afghanistan in June.
Rescheduled once due to the pandemic, India were to play Qatar in Bhubaneswar on October 8, Bangladesh away on November 12 and host Afghanistan on November 17. But in August, “in the light of the current Covid-19 situation in many countries”, AFC and Fifa rescheduled all qualifiers to next year. Out of contention for the final round of the World Cup qualifiers, India, on two points from five games, can have an easier route to the 2023 Asian Cup if they finish third in the group. With three games to play, India are fourth.
Hard lockdowns, travel restrictions and mandatory 14-day quarantine for foreigners ruled out a training camp under head coach Igor Stimac and his staff, said Kushal Das, All India Football Federation (AIFF) general secretary. So, it made no sense to schedule friendlies in November, he said. “The players have just started training at their clubs for ISL,” he said. Also, given India’s quarantine rules, hosting foreign teams would have been difficult, said Das over the phone from New Delhi.
Lack of games has left India players fretting. “It’s not in our hands but it is frustrating,” said FC Goa and India midfielder Brandon Fernandes in a recent Zoom call organised by his club. “It bothers me and I am sure it bothers the other India players as well,” said Anirudh Thapa, India and Chennaiyin FC central midfielder. Thapa’s club and country teammate Lallianzuala Chhangte said: “On the bright side we hope matches can take place in 2021 and when they do, we will be in better shape in terms of match fitness and other aspects having played in ISL.” The three are with their clubs in Goa now.
The players said Igor Stimac is in touch. “He has been motivating me to work continuously and stay fit for club and the national team,” said Thapa. “His assistant coach regularly gave us fitness programmes to follow during the lockdown. They were really helpful,” said Chhangte.
Fernandes said Stimac has told him he “would need to be at 100% when you come for the national team.”