India's campaign in Round Two of the joint 2022 World Cup - 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers began on what could be termed a positive note. An unlucky 2-1 defeat to Oman started it off before the Blue Tigers showed extraordinary resolve to hold Asian champions Qatar away from home to a goalless draw.
However, all the positive feeling from the two results dissipated quickly when Igor Stimac's men took on Bangladesh at home, in Kolkata, last October. What followed was an abject display in attack. India could not cut through the 187th ranked team in the world but also could have well fallen to a defeat had Adil Khan not popped up with an equaliser late on. Bangladesh were also denied a strong shout for penalty.
It was followed by yet another 1-1 draw to Afghanistan who were 149th at that point in the rankings. What should have been, on paper, a victory almost ended up as a defeat if not for another late goal, this time from Seimenlen Doungel.
India, as such, has an attractive domestic league (Indian Super League) which spins a considerable amount of money (for players), has good quality broadcast and media coverage and attracts big name foreign players. It was mind-boggling how Indian players who have had so much exposure struggled against their modest counter-parts from Bangladesh.
India are just outside the top-100 in the FIFA rankings and ideally should have been too strong for Bangladesh at least, let alone Afghanistan. The Indian team lacked creativity and guile required to break down opponents like Bangladesh, something that is also down to the playing time forward-minded players get in India's domestic leagues.
It was not surprising to hear coach Stimac vociferously advocate for a reduction in the number of foreigners plying their trade in the country. He was rightly concerned that none of his forwards, barring Sunil Chhetri, are getting consistent game time which has directly impacted India's attacking impetus in international matches.
If we consider just out and out strikers, only 10 Indians scored in the recently concluded ISL, contributing 19 goals. Nine of them were Chhetri's and Manvir Singh, with two goals, is next on the list. Just 6.5 per cent of the total goals scored in ISL were contributed by Indian strikers. Those are deplorable statistics. And three of Chhetri's goals were penalties.
Compare it to Bangladesh now. The topscoring Bangladeshi striker in the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), the country's top division, in the 2018-19 season (the last fully completed season) was Dhaka Abahani forward Nabib Newaj Jibon who scored 16 goals. Next on the list is Bashundhara Kings' Motin Mia who scored 11 goals. Mannaf Rabby has scored eight goals. Other forwards like Toklis Ahmed and Arifur Rahman have scored seven goals each. The list goes on.
Bangladesh coach Jamie Day's task must be easier compared to Stimac when his best strikers are scoring goals galore in the domestic league.
And it is not limited to strikers. In general, one could easily argue that Bangladesh are doing more to nurture local players than India with its glitzy, glamorous leagues and star foreign players.
BPL features more games than ISL or the I-League. With 13 teams participating, 24 league matches are guaranteed for each team in the BPL. In the ISL, the number of guaranteed matches for a team stands at 18 whereas in the I-League, it is 20.
Bangladesh's second division, the Championship League, also guarantees 20 matches to the clubs taking part.
Now coupling the number of matches in a season with the foreign player rule, the opportunities for a local player is far greater in Bangladesh than in the more illustrious leagues of India. Bangladesh follows a strict 3+1 rule which means a maximum of three foreigners plus a foreigner from an Asian country can only be fielded at the same time. In the ISL and I-League, the number of foreigners who can take to the field is five.
We have not even considered the cup games here. India's less-illustrious neighbours have two cup tournaments as well - the Federation Cup and the Independence Cup which adds more games to the calendar.
A team has to play at least five matches to get to the final of the Federation Cup and India do not have a cup tournament right now.
On an average, combining both the Premier League and the Championship league, Bangladesh has a greater talent pool of players in the top two leagues than India which is criminal considering how big a country India is and how spread the game of football is.
To boot, we have not even touched on the quality of foreigners playing in the league. Many overseas players, after leaving Indian clubs, end up finding favour with Bangladeshi clubs. For example, Kervens Belfort, Mailson Alves and the likes. Then again there are players who moved to India after impressing in Bangladesh like Sony Norde and Masih Saighani.
Clearly, the defining factor is not the quality of foreign stars but the game time available for local players.
No wonder India are unable to dominate their humble neighbours despite having a glamorous domestic footballing scene. Bangladesh have a more efficient system, simple. And this fact has been evident for a while now.
Forget the World Cup qualifier both teams played. Abahani Dhaka got the better of two Indian clubs, champions of the ISL and the I-League in Chennaiyin FC and Minerva Punjab, in Group E of the 2019 AFC Cup. At the expense of the two Indian 'giants', Abahani qualified for the inter-zonal play-offs.
Then there is the prestigious Sheikh Kamal International Club Cup, an invitational tournament held in Dhaka. In 2019, three Indian clubs participated in it including Mohun Bagan, Chennai City and Gokulam Kerala FC.
While Chennai City crashed out in the group stages, Gokulam Kerala were knocked out in the semifinals by Chittagong Abahani. Mohun Bagan were also knocked out in the other semifinals.
Clearly, Bangladesh national team and Bangladeshi clubs are competing hard with their Indian counter-parts while they should have, going by the rankings, been keeling over. And it has everything to do with a comparatively robust footballing structure.
Unless there are more matches and tournaments and unless more local players get consistent game time, India's standards might not progress at a desirable rate. Reducing the foreign player quota might be a start.