Indian football legend Sunil Chhetri has made it to the 17-member Indian men’s football squad for the Hangzhou Asian Games 2023. Although it’s highly likely that he will lead the team, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) hasn’t officially confirmed it. The AIFF succeeded in securing Chhetri’s participation in the event, despite opposition from his Indian Super League (ISL) club, Bengaluru FC.
Club vs. Country Struggle
Initially, Chhetri was part of the provisional 22-member squad for the Asian Games, as three overage players, including Gurpreet Singh Sandhu from Bengaluru FC and Sandesh Jhinghan from FC Goa, are allowed in each squad for the U-23 event. However, this sparked a dispute between the clubs and the national team.
ISL clubs refused to release their first-choice players for the Asian Games because it doesn’t fall within the FIFA window for international matches, meaning clubs aren’t obligated to release players for the event. This led to minimal training for the Indian squad.
The AIFF initially arranged one-way tickets from India to Thailand, hoping to persuade the clubs to let the players move directly to Hangzhou from Thailand. But since the clubs stood firm, the AIFF issued return tickets for the players back to India.
Several ISL clubs cited their commitments to AFC tournaments and the start of the ISL as reasons for withholding players, despite national interests.
Resolution Through Dialogue
With FIFA rules favoring clubs heavily, the AIFF engaged in back-channel talks to find an acceptable solution. Ultimately, although Chhetri made it to the Asian Games squad, neither goalkeeper Gurpreet nor defender Sandesh received clearance from BFC and Goa, respectively.
Only eight players from the initial 22-member squad made it to the revised list. The AIFF is yet to confirm the head coach, with the U-23 coach, Clifford Miranda, as a potential choice if Igor Stimac, the senior men’s coach, opts out.
Exciting Asian Games Ahead
The two-time champions India will kick off their Asian Games campaign against hosts China on September 19, followed by matches against Bangladesh on September 21 and Myanmar on September 24.