Former players and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) have criticised the Indian Olympic Association's (IOA) decision to withdraw the Indian football team from the Asian Games in August. The IOA had announced that only the teams featuring in the top eight of Asia would be cleared to go, and the Indian football team, ranked 14 in Asia, didn't make the cut.
This would be the first time in 24 years India won't be sending a team to the Asian Games, and the AIFF slammed the decision in its press release.
"Football as a global sport needs to be looked at differently. It's clear the IOA lacks the vision and competence to understand that it's a sport played by 212 countries and that the top five teams in Asia play in the FIFA World Cup, where the level of competition is far superior to the Asian Games," AIFF said.
While there's little doubt that India would not be competing for a medal at the tournament, the decision to withdraw was particularly jarring considering they will be competing in the 2019 AFC Cup and would have been hoping to get some match experience against Asia's strongest teams heading into that competition. The Asian Games is a U-23 competition and 11 players in the current Indian roster are in that age group.
India were due to be drawn in Pot 4 of the draw, which would have meant there was a good chance they would have been drawn against at least one of United Arab Emirates, Thailand or Bahrain, the three teams they are grouped alongside in the Asian Cup next January.
Former India captain Renedy Singh, who was part of the Asian Games team in Busan in 2002, said there are few avenues for the level of exposure that the quadrennial event offers for an U-23 player. "U-23 players hardly get a chance to play. They need to get as many games as possible. The kind of competition you get will determine your confidence before these big tournaments," he said.
In that tournament, Renedy played against China, which had just featured in the 2002 World Cup. Renedy says the experience was crucial to his development. "If you constantly play teams like Nepal and Bangladesh, you are going to be at that level. Unless you play better sides than yours, you won't have any hope of getting better. You need to get these games so you can at least judge where your country stands," he says.
This holds particularly true at a time when national football sides across Asia are steadily getting stronger. "Forget competing against sides like Japan or South Korea or Iran. How many times do we even get a chance to compete against teams of the calibre of Thailand (FIFA ranking 122) and Vietnam (FIFA rank 102)? Unless that happens, how we will get an idea where we stand," he says.
Although the AIFF say they have lined up friendlies against Saudi Arabia ahead of the Asian Cup, Renedy says those matches wouldn't compare to the experience the players would have got at the Asian Games. "Playing in a friendly is very different from playing in a tournament where there are consequences if you play poorly and lose," he says.
Renedy also doesn't buy the argument that India's lack of medal prospects should bar them from travelling to the Jakarta-Palembang Games. "How do you expect India to win medals when the side won't even be supported when they need to play more competitive football? And if the only goal of competing in the Asian Games is to win medals, then why bother about developing football at all?"