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Asian Cup Qualifiers: How to Kill Home Advantage, the Indian Football Way

The organisers of Asian Cup qualifiers in Kolkata had decided not to sell tickets for the Indian football team’s match. Instead, around 15,000-20,000 online complimentary tickets were to be issued for spectators at the 70,000 capacity Salt Lake Stadium on the opening day against Cambodia. Sunil Chhetri decided to raise his voice and the Committee of Administrators (CoA) stepped in at the right time to change the decision.
Indian football team training camp

For a change, Igor Stimac had his Indian football team players together in training camps for a considerable period ahead of the Asian Cup qualifiers.

The sheer incompetence of Praful Patel and his erstwhile committee in the All India Football Federation (AIFF) continue to haunt football in the country on the eve of crucial Asian Cup qualifiers in Kolkata beginning June 8.

Well, this is no sweeping statement or an attempt to paint the Supreme Court-ousted committee in poor light any further. 

It is only a sad commentary of how a bunch of people, who otherwise plot flawlessly to hold on to power in the federation for years, can be such miserable failures while looking after the interest of the national team.

The drama that was enacted for around four days surrounding India’s forthcoming campaign in Kolkata is a testimony of how mindless and insensitive some people can be -- the interest of the national team doesn’t figure anywhere in their list of priorities; they stay blinded by the power equations in the corridors of AIFF.

Otherwise, how come some senior officials, who boast of running the game’s administration for years, can reach a conclusion that the football loving people of Kolkata will have no or little interest in watching three of India’s matches in the qualifiers, something that can take India to the Asian Cup final rounds for the fourth time in history.

So, in their combined wisdom, it was decided not to sell tickets for the match -- instead, around 15,000-20,000 online complimentary tickets would be issued to watch matches at the 70,000 capacity Salt Lake Stadium on the opening day against Cambodia. Luckily for India, skipper Sunil Chhetri decided to raise his voice and the Committee of Administrators (CoA) stepped in at the right time to change the decision. Now 50,000 complimentary tickets would be issued for the opening day and if needed, more will come for the next two matches.

It remains a mystery how a senior member of the organising committee, in which the AIFF has a big role to play, could come up with an irresponsible statement like, “There’s no more restriction (on the number of people to be allowed in Salt Lake Stadium) and the state government has allowed full capacity. But with the lower-ranked opponents in Hong Kong (147), Afghanistan (150) and Cambodia (171), we don’t expect the crowd to go beyond the 5,000-mark. Also, the late kick-off time -- 8.30 pm for all India’s three matches -- has proved to be a dampener.” 

It's a statement that stunned many, Indian captain Sunil Chhetri being one of them. He made no attempt to hide his disappointment and said India had willingly surrendered their home advantage. “It doesn’t make sense. The fact that we are hosting it would make no difference then,” he said. 

“We are struggling to sell tickets when we are playing as a national team…. we go for training here and 100 people come to watch us. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the country. This is why I feel strange when I hear that the response might be cold. So, you can blame whoever for not doing enough to promote the game,” he further said.

Chhetri wasn’t off the mark. When India played Bangladesh in World Cup qualifiers in October 2019, 60,000 people turned up to cheer the home side; no matter India had no history of qualifying for the second round in the Asian zone.

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What happened was simply inexplicable. Sources in the AIFF revealed a couple of interesting things that could be related to this issue. Firstly, had the federation wanted to sell tickets, then the normal stadium rent of Rs. 16 lakh per day would have been charged by the state government, which owns the Salt Lake Stadium. Given the current financial conditions of the AIFF, especially after the sports ministry’s drastic cut down of its ACTC grant, it wouldn’t have been an easy task to pay such a huge amount on match days.

An AIFF official, however, dismissed this theory saying the issue was handled poorly. “I don’t understand why some people are saying that the AIFF wanted to avoid paying high rent and decided to turn the matches free.

“Whatever the per day rent of Salt Lake Stadium be, the state government always charges much lower than that as the AIFF books the stadium through the local association (IFA). So, that’s not the point. But what has not been highlighted is that even if they pay nominal rent, they end up spending Rs. 10 to 12 lakh per day for hosting matches. The biggest cost is the generator and fuel charges for the floodlight,” the official said.

He further said: “In the Asian Cup qualifiers too, the federation would end up spending Rs. 10 to 12 lakh per day. Even the printing of complimentary tickets costs money. The AIFF could have easily requested the state government to allow sale of tickets to recover the amount. Instead, one of the officials publicly issued a statement saying the crowd would not turn up for matches.”

Indian football fans should thank the CoA and Chhetri for intervening at the right time. Chhetri had the guts to say it openly -- even at 37, he is the country’s biggest advertisement for the game; Indian football doesn’t have another decent face to project. He felt India’s campaign had been seriously hampered by some unimaginative officials, who simply forgot how important these seven days could be for the Indian team.

Luckily, and for a change, Igor Stimac had his boys together in the camp for a considerable period. They first trained in Bellary and then in Kolkata. It was followed by a friendly against Jordan in Dubai, and, since then, Chhetri and company are camping in Kolkata again. For the first time since he joined in 2019, Stimac won’t have much to complain about not getting enough time with the boys.

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Given the current scenario, India’s qualification for the 2023 Asian Cup shouldn’t be a problem. They are training hard and are pitted against three inferior ranked opponents, that also on home turf. It’s an ideal situation for India and no better chance than this could have come their way to make the grade. On paper, India are the strongest side and have the capacity to walk away with nine points.

Yet, several ifs and buts are being attached whenever there is a discussion on the qualifiers. And for that, sceptics are not the usual culprits. It came from within the Indian national team. Firstly, they didn’t really impress during the preparatory period – not one match they could play that convinced the fans. To add to it, the coach and the skipper both sounded unusually guarded while talking about India’s chances, something that did give a feeling they were not seeing themselves as runaway winners in the qualifiers at home.  

India begin their campaign in the ideal situation -- the match against lowly-ranked Cambodia should fetch them three points. In the 2007 Nehru Cup in Delhi, India routed Cambodia 6-0 with Chhetri getting two of the goals. So, when Chhetri says, “If you don’t do well against Cambodia, then you lose half the battle,” it doesn’t leave anyone extremely confident.

Stimac has often been accused of not being able to finalise his starting line-up in three years. He can’t be blamed always because finding suitable players for key positions had been a struggle for him since the time he arrived in India. That he pointed the finger at Indian Super League (ISL) for making the country’s top league a foreigners-dependent meet only tells how much frustrated the Croatian actually is.

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But what leaves the fans in grave doubt is when the coach talks at length about Afghanistan footballers’ stint in the European circuit or Hong Kong’s policy of recruiting Brazilian players for their national team. Is he on his guard and trying to send a message? Or is he just a cautious professional?

Sunil Chhetri had come to India’s rescue on many occasions in the past -- both on and off the pitch. Twice before he played key roles in taking India to Asian Cup final rounds, in 2011 and 2019. Now, on the eve of 2023 qualifiers, he has gone out of his way to appeal to fans through social media to throng the Salt Lake Stadium in numbers. The football-crazy people of Kolkata would certainly oblige Chhetri, but not without a cause. They will come hoping to watch India top the qualifiers. 

Time Stimac and his men fulfilled the expectations.

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