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  • Writer's pictureAaryan

The Most Important Football Story of 2024

On 6th June 2024, at 7pm IST, India will kick off against Kuwait in one of the most important games in Indian football history. It will be skipper Sunil Chhetri's final game in an Indian jersey. It is critical to India's World Cup qualification and AFC Asian Cup qualification campaigns, and pivotal in determining the direction of Indian football going forward. But it is not the most important football match of the day. That happens next, when Palestine take on Lebanon at 9:30pm IST.

Palestine v UAE at the AFC Asian Cup. Photo from: Sorin Furcoi/AlJazeera

World Cup Qualifiers

The 2026 FIFA World Cup set to take place in USA, Mexico & Canada will feature a new format expanded to 48 teams from the 32 of 2022. This means an increase in Asian teams as well, with potentially 8 or 9 featuring in the tournament, up from 6 in 2022. This has given many Asian teams new hope of reaching the world's biggest stage. Indeed, that is one factor that has garnered support for the otherwise (rightly) unpopular new format, even amongst Indians, who can now dream of India at the world cup. But it is no mean feat for an Asian team to qualify for the world cup. Here's what the qualification pathway looks like.

Round 2 is where we are right now, with 36 teams split into 9 groups of 4, with the top 2 in each group progressing to Round 3, which will feature 18 teams in 3 groups of 6. This phase is significant because it is from here that qualification to the World Cup becomes a possibility. Reaching round 3 also offers direct qualification to the next AFC Asian Cup. The top 2 teams from each of the round 3 groups qualify for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, while the next 2 advance to Round 4 of qualification. This features 6 teams in 2 groups of 3, with the 1st in each going to the world cup, while the 2 runners-up play each other in Round 5 for a spot in the inter-confederation tournament. This final playoff tournament features 6 teams, one from each continental federation, where the top 2 qualify for the 2026 World Cup. Whew. No mean feat, indeed.

Palestinian Hope

Players celebrate a goal at the Asian Cup. Photo from: Football Palestine

Amidst Israel's ongoing genocide in Gaza, the Palestinian football team has provided a beacon of hope and a small cause for celebration for the people of Palestine. The onslaught on Gaza has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history where these players call home. They have had to witness rampant and arbitrary death and destruction in their homeland and undoubtedly many challenges from a sporting perspective as well. From potential national players being trapped in Gaza, to the team almost being stopped from leaving to compete internationally, to stranded staff and family whom players have lost contact with, the journey for these players to get where they are has taken incredible resilience. Despite facing some of the worst adversity of any team in the history of the sport, the Palestinian team is defying all odds to make history of their own.

In January 2024, they had a historic AFC Asian Cup campaign, securing their first ever win in the tournament and reaching the knockout stages for the 1st time in their history. They even put up a valiant fight against eventual tournament winners Qatar, before being eliminated in a respectable 2-1 loss (scoring a goal against Qatar in AFC competitions is an achievement in itself). Now, they stand on the cusp of reaching Round 3 of the World Cup Qualifiers for the 1st time in their history.

They are 2nd in their group behind Australia with only 2 games remaining, having won 2 of their previous 4. Getting 1 point from their remaining 2 fixtures should

suffice, but it will be difficult to get a result against Australia in their final game. Thus, their game today against Lebanon is crucial. As long as Palestine don't lose, they will go through to Round 3 and qualify for the 2027 Asian Cup. The game should be a tight affair. The reverse fixture was a goalless draw, and the teams' last 45 fixtures have been ties. But Palestine go in on better form, with Lebanon not having beaten them since 1998, and this Lebanon team still winless in 2024. With Lebanon needing to beat both Palestine today and Bangladesh on the 11th to overtake Palestine, the latter has a good chance to go through to Round 3 for the first time, thanks to their impressive recent performances. Once they reach that stage, they will also have a very realistic chance of getting to Round 4 as a 3/4th placed team in their group, given their recent Asian Cup campaign where they showed they are capable of big results. And from that point on, anything is possible. Palestine qualifying for the FIFA World Cup would be the greatest underdog story in all football (and that's coming from a Leicester fan) and would be more than worth the sacrifice of the new 48-team format. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Even making it to Round 3 would be amazing. And it would be vital for the future of Palestinian football as well, ensuring the team remains active and gets international football, which is important given they cannot host matches of their own. Indeed, the fact that they do not get the advantage of home turf in any matches makes the team's progress thus far all the more impressive. While most of the sporting world, like most of the rest of the world, has turned a blind eye to the genocide in Gaza, this Palestinian football team has shown that they will not be ignored. They have fought tough opponents and tougher circumstances to represent the endurance of the Palestinian spirit. Today, let us hope they are rewarded for it.

Chhetri's Farewell

India's World Cup Qualification journey is not quite so meaningful, but it has within it a poignant story of its own. Today's qualifying game against Kuwait will be the final game for India's footballing legend Sunil Chhetri. The 39-year-old striker has had an illustrious career spanning 19 years, during which he has carried the team to great victories. He is the 4th highest all-time international goalscorer in the world. For an Indian's name to appear on such a list, right below the likes of Messi and Ronaldo, is monumental for Indian football.

The game is a very consequential one too. It is a must-win match if India is to make it through to the next round of World Cup qualification, after poor results against lower-ranked Afghanistan in their previous two outings. While they still hold 2nd place,

their fate depends on this game. If they do not beat Kuwait, the latter need only draw to Afghanistan in their final game to overtake India, who will likely lose their final game against Qatar. If India win, however, they would secure 2nd spot barring an unlikely upset by Afghanistan. India won the reverse fixture that took place in Kuwait. A 2nd place finish would take India through to Round 3 as well as directly qualify them to the 2027 Asian Cup, but it might have a much deeper impact on the future of Indian football.

Since 2019, the Indian football team has been coached by Igor Stimac, and he has achieved some positive results with the team. The highlights include 3 tournament wins in 2023 and an unbeaten run of nearly 15 games that ended late last year. Since then, however, the results have certainly dropped off, with the team registering just 1 win (against Kuwait, incidentally) in their last 13 games. At the beginning of this year, India had a difficult Asian Cup campaign, losing all 3 games without scoring a single goal. That was followed by a poor showing in important WC Qualifying games against much lower-ranked Afghanistan, with a draw and a loss, both at home. After these two, many Indian football fans called for Stimac's sacking. However, with his contract running till 2026, it would have been an expensive sacking for the AIFF. As a result, the AIFF negotiated a new deal with Stimac wherein he has agreed to resign if India do not make it to Round 3 of qualifying. But if they do, Stimac gets an automatic contract extension until 2028! That might be the most signifcant ramification of this match.

Unlike Palestine, India have little chance of going further even if they do get to Round 3 - certainly based on recent form. The 10 additional games would certainly be valuable experience, but it would be very optimistic to think India can go further. Direct qualification to the 2027 Asian Cup would be a good thing, but I would back India to get through the qualification in any case. Recent form has some fans calling for a shake-up in the Indian national team set-up, specifically the management and the AIFF's administration. Even Chhetri's retirement potentially signals time for a new era. Problems in Indian football probably go beyond Stimac, who has done a decent job, for the most part. But recent results do not promise a bright future, and things are unlikley to change if Stimac remains at the helm. Everything might continue in the same fashion until 2028, when we'd be well into qualification for the 2030 world cup. If a large-scale rebuild is what Indian football needs, qualifying for Round 3 of this WC Qualifying campaign may not actually be in the interest of India's long-term footballing future.

As much as we'd love to see Chhetri have a wonderful farewell, whether or not we want India to win this match against Kuwait, might well depend on whether or not we want Igor Stimac to remain the coach of the Indian team until 2028.


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