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Indian Football Team’s 2023 Year in Review: Blend of Highs, Lows & Controversies

The Indian football team had an eventful 2023 that was dominated by highs, but not without a side of controversies.

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In a year when India hosted the cricket World Cup, the winds of change rustled through the sporting landscape. Indian football made steady progress in 2023, garnering a fervent following among sports enthusiasts.

Pride and optimism have been aroused by the modest-yet-praiseworthy results of the Blue Tigers in the 2023 season – the spirited efforts of the Sunil Chhetri-led side on the international stage are garnering attention.

With the year coming to an end, let’s take a look back at Indian football’s journey through highs, lows and controversies.

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Dominant Triumphs at the Start

The year began with the Blue Tigers bagging the Tri-national international tournament trophy in March, with an all-win record and without conceding even a single goal.

The Sunil Chhetri-led side kickstarted their campaign with a 1-0 win over Myanmar and an emphatic 2-0 win against the higher-ranked Kyrgyzstan.

It was followed by what was the first-ever tournament for the Blue Tigers in Bhubaneshwar, where the fans were treated to a fantastic spectacle over the course of four matches against the likes of Mongolia, Vanuatu and Lebanon. The hosts did not concede any goal and with a solid 2-0 win over the higher-ranked Lebanon, the Indian men's senior team clinched the Intercontinental Cup, reclaiming the title they last won in inaugural year 2018.

For their third assignment of the year, the men in blue showcased their mettle as they emerged victorious in the SAFF Championship. Sunil Chhetri scored a stunning hat-trick to secure a remarkable 4-0 victory against the first opponent, the returning Pakistani team. India advanced to the semifinals, where they met their opponents from the Mediterranean, Lebanon, yet again, thanks to a decisive 2-0 victory over Nepal and a 1-1 draw against Kuwait.

The Indian football team had an eventful 2023 that was dominated by highs, but not without a side of controversies.

Indian football team celebrating after clinching their ninth SAFF Championship title.

(Photo: Twitter/IndianFootball)

The Blue Tigers came out on top in penalties with a scoreline of 4-2, setting up another encounter with Kuwait in the summit clash in Bengaluru, where 26,380 fans became recipients of India's famous shootout victory and their record ninth SAFF Championship.

Igor Stimac became the first head coach from outside the country to win consecutive SAFF Championships with this 5-4 victory. After winning the semifinal match against Lebanon on penalties, this was the first time India defeated two West Asian nations in consecutive games. India soon returned to sub-100 FIFA rankings for the first time in five years when they secured the 99th position.

Underwhelming on Foreign Turf

Just when Stimac’s wards were riding high on confidence and starting to look formidable, the Indian side were humbled as they entered foreign soil, putting an end to their 11-game unbeaten streak at home turf. The Blue Tigers lost the King’s Cup and the Merdeka Cup.

Entering the King’s Cup without their charismatic skipper Sunil Chhetri, who opted out for personal reasons, the Indian side first lost to Iraq 5-4 in a penalty shootout after the semifinal match ended at 2-2. Then, in the third place play-off against the 98th ranked Lebanese team, India went down 0-1.

Followed the Merdeka Cup, the Blue Tigers suffered a heart-wrenching 2-4 loss at the hands of hosts Malaysia in the semi-final. Despite a disallowed goal, an easy penalty and a handball within the hosts' penalty area, India's play was enthusiastically welcomed in front of a prejudiced audience at Bukit Jalil Stadium. While the result continued to sting, the performance spoke volumes for India’s perseverance.

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Controversy Marred the Blue Tigers

With key wins at home and significant upgrade in India’s football, coach Igor Stimac was at the receiving end of the credits. However, as history beckoned, the joy was fleeting, as the Blue Tigers were marred by controversies.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) persuaded the Sports Ministry to permit football teams to travel to China for the 2023 Asian Games, following renewed enthusiasm among fans after the SAFF Championship triumph. But with the Indian Super League (ISL) starting on 21 September, and many clubs being hesitant to release players, a tug of war ensued.

Whilst the teams had their case in this regard, with the Asian Games being outside FIFA's window for international fixtures, the tussle ultimately enraged Stimac, who was caught in another controversy.

As per reports, the Indian coach had sought an astrologer's advice to pick his team during the AFC Asian Cup qualification round.

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Motley Crew at the 19th Asian Games

In an effort to prepare the Indian team for the Asian Games, World Cup Qualifiers and the Asian Cup, the Croatian coach of the Indian team Igor Stimac had been pushing out frequently against ISL clubs for adamantly refusing to release players for the national camp.

But with some players being unavailable, Stimac could assemble an almost motley crew of Indian players at the eleventh hour.

The Indian football team had an eventful 2023 that was dominated by highs, but not without a side of controversies.

Sunil Chhetri scored a goal against Bangladesh at the 2023 Asian Games.

Image: Twitter

After negotiations, a few players were released at the last minute, meaning they arrived in China only a few hours before playing their first match.

India still made it to the elimination round, where a formidable Saudi Arabian squad defeated them 2-0. En route to the knockouts, Sunil Chhetri and Co. lost their opening match against China 5-1. They then defeated Bangladesh 1-0 and held Myanmar to a 1-1 draw.
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FIFA World Cup Hopes

The national side teamed up again in November, where they defeated Kuwait 1-0 to begin their second-round run in the FIFA World Cup 2026 AFC Qualifiers. It was India's first victory over a Middle Eastern country this year. The next game was the host’s second game of the Joint Qualification campaign for the World Cup and the AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027 in Bhubaneshwar, where Asian Cup Champions Qatar dealt them a crushing 3-0 defeat.

As the Blue Tigers conclude the 2023 season with triumphs, setbacks and controversies, the Indian men's football team will go to Qatar in January to compete in the AFC Asian Cup, where they will be grouped with Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria.

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