This week, the Indian men's national football team will begin their journey towards the 2024 AFC Asian Cup, with the Intercontinental Cup kicking off in Bhubaneswar on Friday. For Igor Stimac and his team, however, this lead-up towards the big tournament in January will be more than just about being prepared for the tests posed by Australia, Uzbekistan and Syria in the group stage of the continental showpiece event.
These next few months will form the bedrock of India's progress towards the AIFF's 2026 goal of being one of the top ten men's team in Asia. They are currently 19th in Asia (101st in the world), due to which they were in Pot 4 for the draw for the Asian Cup, in contrast to 2019, when they were in Pot 3 due to being 15th in the continent.
How can India make that move towards the top ten? Only by winning enough number of games. The more matches they win the more points they accumulate. The higher they are in the FIFA rankings, the better their chance of being in higher pots in draws for AFC competitions, which on paper, would mean they face more teams ranked below them, thereby giving them a better chance to win more games and accumulate more points.
Here's a look at a critical year for the Indian men's football team:
First, how do the FIFA rankings work?
A critical consideration in the current FIFA rankings system is the calibre of the opponent, with more points accumulated for beating a higher-ranked opponent, like India did during the March friendly against the Kyrgyz Republic. All the tournaments that India will play in the next few months will count as friendlies, where wins count for fewer points than they would in a World Cup qualifying match or an Asian Cup match.
FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifiers Second Round
The draw for the first two rounds of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers will be made on July 27. India will enter in the second round, which begins in November. The AFC haven't yet confirmed which FIFA rankings will be used to determine pots for the draw. It could be the updated one in July and in that case, the Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Cup become even more important for India, who need to make up one more ranking spot in Asia to be in Pot 2 for that draw.
Lebanon present crucial opportunity for India
Lebanon feature in all four tournaments that India are scheduled to play in the next four months, and currently they are ranked just one spot above India in Asia. Those games that India face Lebanon will be a double whammy for both sides, with the opportunity to not only put ranking points on the board themselves but also ensure a loss of points for close rivals. So, India cannot afford to lose any game they play against Lebanon in the next few months.
India face 99th-ranked Lebanon, 164th-ranked Vanuatu and 183rd-ranked Mongolia in the Intercontinental Cup. It goes without saying here that not winning against either Vanuatu or Mongolia will be a massive blow to India as they attempt to garner all-important FIFA ranking points ahead of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers draw. The clash against Lebanon in this competition could have a direct bearing on which pot the two teams are in for that draw, with an India win likely to take them above Lebanon and thereby into the top 18 teams in Asia, which would put them in Pot 2 for that draw.
India face Kuwait, Nepal and Pakistan in the group stages of the SAFF Cup. All the teams are ranked well below India at the moment, so a loss would again hamper their progress. Lebanon are also one of the guest teams in the SAFF Cup and if India make it through to the final, they will most likely face the West Asian nation in the final, which would be another direct head-to-head battle that is a must-not-lose match.
King's Cup in Thailand
The teams featuring in this competition are the hosts Thailand, Iraq and Lebanon. India have beaten Thailand in the previous two times they've faced each other -- 4-1 in the 2019 Asian Cup and 1-0 in the King's Cup that year as well. Of course, that Lebanon match is a must-not-lose, but India's target at this tournament could be to pull off an upset against the Iraq (who are ranked seventh in Asia), which will count for more points than wins against the likes of Pakistan and Nepal in the SAFF Cup.
Merdeka Tournament in Malaysia
By the time India go into the Merdeka tournament in Malaysia, which is scheduled for October, they should be well-drilled into Stimac's methods. That will be crucial against Lebanon and Palestine who are closer to India in the FIFA rankings.
The conclusion here is that India cannot afford to lose any game that they play at home in the next month, because those are the games that are likely to directly impact the World Cup qualifiers draw, for which India cannot afford to be in Pot 3.