Mission 2026: Why India must look beyond AFC Asian Cup?

Sunil Chhetri India China
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With the 2026 FIFA World Cup being expanded to 48 teams, India need to start looking towards the future...

There is plenty of hope and expectations riding on India’s campaign as the kickoff for the 2019 AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup approaches.

Among the 24 teams in the fray in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India are making their fourth-ever appearance in the continental competition. Runners-up to Israel in the 1964 edition, India have suffered group-stage exits in their subsequent two editions in 1984 and 2011.

Making the knockouts of the tournament this time around will not be easy for Stephen Constantine's boys. It will be tough with India drawn alongside hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain in Group A.

If one were to go on the basis of FIFA rankings, India would be the second favourites to proceed from Group A but football does not work like that. It will take some serious effort on the part of the Blue Tigers if they are to advance to the last 16.

However, India’s wait for a maiden FIFA World Cup qualification remains a distant dream as of now with the team still struggling to break into the top tier of Asian football. But, with FIFA expanding the 2026 to a 48-team event, the odds of India doing so have shot up drastically.

Previously, only 4.5 teams (four direct and one team to the playoffs) from the Asian confederation were afforded an entry to the World Cup. However, with the changes to the format for the 2026 tournament jointly hosted by the United States of America (USA), Canada and Mexico, at least eight teams from Asia will be given qualification.

With the odds of securing an elusive ticket to the World Cup nearly doubled, India must strive to seize the golden chance on offer. For that, it would be imperative for the Blue Tigers to aim to break into the top-eight teams in the continent in the coming years.

And what India has to do is work on whatever they achieve at the Asian Cup and ensure they are counted among the continent's top teams by the time the qualification rounds for the 2026 World Cup comes along. The Blue Tigers need to keep improving by playing tougher teams and generating a good amount of talent to widen the national pool.

Right now, there is a perception around the continent that India are not beaten easily. In the coming years, we need to build on that and be counted among the continent's elite (at least the top eight). The initial four spots will most certainly go to the powerhouses like South Korea, Australia, Iran and Japan. India will have to fight for the rest. It will not be an easy task for sure but certainly the benchmark they need to train their sights on.

India are currently ranked 97th in the world and 15th in the AFC. China and the UAE are among the top eight ranked teams in Asia currently. India’s recent goal-less stalemate in an international friendly against China and Oman (who are 10th in Asia) showed they are not too far off from the bracket although they will still require a jump of eight places to break into the group.

The same sentimentis echoed by star Indian defender Sandesh Jhingan.

"When we are playing against a team who are in-form. You are tested the most. I enjoy it. China is a decent side managed by a great coach, but we accepted the challenge with positivity. The result shows that we have it in us. You always want to play these big games. That's where you get to know who you really are," he said.

They will have the chance to test themselves against the UAE in the group stages itself but it is the larger picture they should be looking at during the Asian Cup. The brief should be to make giant strides towards ‘Mission 2026’. Even the make up of the team should reflect that and the next generation of Indian team is already being groomed.

The highest India has been in Asia in terms of rankings has been 11th, achieved twice in 1996 and 2017. But top eight in Asia should be India’s sole benchmark moving forward and those aspirations need to be shown in the upcoming tournament.