This is probably the only Indian city where the words “World Cup” do not evoke only despair. Last Thursday’s 1-0 win against Kuwait has led to a spike in demand for tickets to Tuesday’s game. But given that India are up against Asian champions Qatar who “destroyed”, as per India head coach Igor Stimac, Afghanistan 8-1, hope needs to be tempered by a dollop of reality.
“There is nothing to lose for us and a hell of lot to gain. So, let’s go for it,” said Stimac in Bhubaneswar on Monday.
In 2019 without Sunil Chhetri, India were the only Asian team to take a point from Qatar. It remains the only point India have from three outings in the World Cup qualifiers against the side that beat Japan 3-1 in the 2019 Asian Cup final. In that World Cup qualifier away, Gurpreet Sandhu made 11 saves and India escaped to a 0-0 draw despite Qatar having 27 shots (India had two) and 15 corner-kicks (India managed one).
“Would rather that I have to work less and get the same result or better,” said Sandhu ahead of this 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup qualifier.
But that game in Doha was preceded by nearly two months of training, said Stimac. “Four years later, the reconstruction is finished but it won’t stop.” Stimac said India have grown from being a team that struggled to take the game to Bangladesh and Afghanistan, both come-from-behind draws after the surprise result against Qatar, “because players such as Sandesh Jhingan, Brandon Fernandes and Rowllin Borges were not available.”
Now, they can play 11 games against opponents such as Kuwait, Iraq and Lebanon and keep clean sheets in some, said Stimac. And stay unbeaten at home. While he said he would always want Ashique Kuruniyan, Jeakson Singh and Anwar Ali – all out with long-term injuries – the difference now is that there are a lot of young players who have come through the process, who understand that pace in the Indian Super League (ISL) is different from that of an international game. “So, now we won’t get caught if there is an injury.”
To the list above, add Manvir Singh. The scorer in the 1-0 win against Kuwait may not be available on Tuesday. He skipped training on Monday evening, the session preceded by a long blast from a fogging machine minutes before the India bus arrived at Kalinga Stadium.
If India miss Manvir’s physical presence on the right, Stimac could switch to 4-3-3. Anirudh Thapa, Suresh Wangjam and Lalengmawia Ralte could then form the midfield. Or, Sahal Abdul Samad could drop into midfield. Sunil Chhetri could have Mahesh Naorem and Udanta Singh on either side in the front three.
“India once had a group of good players. Now, I see a team,” said Qatar coach Carlos Queiroz drawing on his experience as Iran coach during the 2016 qualifying cycle.
Qatar are the world’s 61st ranked team, which places them 31 slots above India. But since that 2019 qualifier, they have had a forgettable World Cup and an under-20 Asian championship where they also lost all three group leagues games including 1-9 to Australia.
So, enter 70-year-old Queiroz to reset and rebuild. Since Italy in 1934, Qatar are the only team to have played the World Cup finals because they hosted it. Under Queiroz, Qatar lost 0-4 to Iran and Panama and 1-2 to Kenya but the Portuguese polyglot said he would like them to be one of the top teams in the world by 2026.
Including Asian Cup golden boot winner Ali Alomez and midfielder Hassan Al-Haydos, there are 12 players in this squad with World Cup experience. “It is a big advantage to be in charge of a team for four years. But we did not start from zero,” said Queiroz.Qatar may have opened with a big win but want more, he said.