India have been clubbed with top-ranked Asian team Iran and Oman, who narrowly missed the bus for Brazil 2014, in Group D of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, which will also double up to identify teams for the 2019 Asian Cup. Turkmenistan and Guam are the other two teams in India’s group, it was revealed at the draw held by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.
While qualifying for the World Cup remains a pipe dream for Stephen Constantine’s side, India stand a realistic chance of making the cut for the Asian Cup for only the second time in nearly four decades.
Iran is the top-ranked team in Asia, at 40th in the FIFA charts, while Oman is ranked 97. India, courtesy their 26-place jump to 147 in the latest world rankings released last week, were placed in Pot 3. India had made the leap after defeating Nepal 2-0 on aggregate in the first round of qualifiers held last month. Given India’s rankings and history in the competition, it was always going to be a tough draw for them.
“It’s a tough draw but it’s always better to be in the draw than be out of it,” Constantine said.
India will open their campaign against Oman on June 11 at home. While the venue is still undecided, it is believed that either Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi, Bangalore or Guwahati will host the tie. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is likely to make a final decision during its executive committee meeting next week.
The countries that finish top of the eight groups and the four second-best teams will progress to the third and final qualification phase for the World Cup in Russia. They will also qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE. The other teams will compete for the remaining 12 slots for the continental championships.
The prospect of hosting Iran, who featured in last year’s World Cup and have been one of the most consistent sides in the continent, can prove to be the much-needed exposure for the Indian team. After playing just two matches in all of last year, the team will play eight matches between now and March 2016, which should provide an opportunity to the team to climb up the rankings.
The AIFF and its commercial partners, IMG-Reliance, however, will face a tricky situation. Four qualifying matches, including the home match against Iran, are likely to clash with this year’s Indian Super League. Last year, the federation gave up international fixtures for the newly-formed tournament. Releasing national team players for the tournament would take some sheen away and might trigger friction between ISL franchisees and the AIFF.
Constantine, however, was concerned only about the team’s chances. “One doesn’t need to explain the strength of Iran and Oman. Iran are the highest ranked Asian country while Oman are a very strong side,” he said.
“Regardless of the FIFA rankings, I am aware of the difficulties of playing against Turkmenistan (159) and Guam (175). Guam, in fact, have made tremendous progress in the last two years under a fellow English coach. We will do all that is possible to get a result.”