Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium at Sarusajai on the outskirts of Guwahati in Assam Credit: Twitter

Guwahati: With the Indian football team all set to start their FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers campaign in Guwahati, Assam the excitement cannot be any bigger – especially in a region where football is somewhat equivalent to cricket in mainland India. Well, they may not be familiar with the players’ names but the passion that runs within is much more than one can imagine.

Undoubtedly, the Northeast boast of having produced some of the finest talents, but what differentiates the region from the rest is that football has always remained its numero uno sport. Leaving apart the rest, if we take a look at some of the tournaments that Assam alone hosted, it was second to none, especially when football in India was all about Bengal and later Goa.

I don’t remember Assam having its own ‘Poster Boy’ now. But certainly there was one –the iconic Gilbertson Sangma, for whom thousands would throng into the Nehru Stadium. Such was the craze that the organisers had to make special arrangements to conduct Bordoloi Trophy matches. Some would even laugh reading these lines now, looking at the current state of the coveted tournament. However, the Bordoloi Trophy matches during the 1970s and 1980s were somewhat much more sought for than the ODIs held in the same ground later.

The Bordoloi Trophy and some other tournaments including the Dugar Shield and ATPA Shield, among others, played a significant role in spreading popularity of the game across the Northeast. These tournaments were significant, especially to Northeast teams as they did not have many opportunities of getting nationwide exposure.

Local clubs including the likes of Gauhati Town Club, Maharana Athletic Club, Assam Police (now Assam Police Blues), GMC Gangtok, among others, used to give the national giants a run for their money. Not to forget, the Independence Day Cup in Nagaon, Assam still remains a major tournament in this part of the country. Many other tournaments may have become defunct owing to various reasons but the legacy that they have left still speak volumes about the passion for football here.

Well it wasn’t too long back, perhaps October of 2014 – when it all changed. It was the time when the region got rewarded with a franchise – NorthEast United FC in the much fancied Indian Super League (ISL). Such was the popularity in the inaugural two editions that the lowest priced tickets would go for sale above Rs 5,000 in the black market. Although the popularity of ISL may have declined over the last few seasons owing to absence of home players in the local franchise, but still Guwahati remains one of hottest destinations as far as the crowd turnout is concerned.

Indian football team coach Igor Stimac giving last-minute tips to team players ahead of match against Oman

Now coming back to the main topic, the Indian national men’s football team have been drawn in Group E for the Asian Qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, alongside hosts Qatar, Oman, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

India are slated to play their first match first against Oman on September 5 at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Sarusajai, Guwahati. It will be followed by matches against Qatar on September 10, Bangladesh on October 15 and Afghanistan on November 14.

Both India and Oman will head into the opening qualifier on the back on similar results. While India have one draw and one victory in the last six encounters, Oman have also had the exact same results, winning one and drawing one in their previous six matches. India’s last match against Oman took place in October 2015 where they were beaten 3-0.

India’s primary aim would be to finish at the top of their group and that would happen if they manage to beat the higher-ranked teams like Oman and Qatar. As per the qualifiers’ format, the top team from each group as well as the four best second teams from the eight groups will progress to the next round which will start from September 2020.

Team India practising at Sarusajai Stadium in Guwahati, Assam

New head coach Igor Stimac has stated that the team has a realistic chance of progressing to the next stage of the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup.

However, he has warned that a lack of game time for his players could have an impact on their chances in the qualifiers. The upcoming Indian Super League edition will start on October 20 while the I-League resumes in the first week of November, if reports are to be believed.

Stimac, who took over from Stephen Constantine earlier in May, has been vocal about the need for a longer domestic football season.

In his first tournament as manager, he ensured a third-place finish at the King’s Cup in Thailand but had a dismal outing at the Intercontinental Cup in June where they failed to win a single game.

Team India practising at Sarusajai Stadium in Guwahati, Assam

The All India Football Federation (AIFF), the sport’s governing body, has recommended to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) that the ISL be recognised as the country’s top tier. But I-League clubs, including giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, are miffed as the coveted spot in the AFC Champions League qualifiers, given to the I-League winners, will now be the ISL’s. And with the latter having no system of promotion-relegation, the clubs feel they are being denied a fair opportunity to compete for a slot among Asia’s elite. In a last-ditch effort, I-League representatives have sought the Prime Minister’s intervention to probe the AIFF’s functioning.

Indian football squad training ahead of FIFA WC qualifier match against Oman

There is a lot of uncertainty over the roadmap of Indian football and if the mess surrounding ISL and the I-League is not solved quickly, there remains a very little chance of Indian football progressing in the right direction.

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