Roll on Monday, and the fans will cheer for the Indian National men’s football team, better known as the Bhangra Boys among the faithful, as they kick off their AFC Challenge Cup Qualifying campaign against Chinese Taipei at the Nasional Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Many Indian fans are expected to show their support for the country’s best football players and India’s matches are expected to a attract capacity crowd on the stands.
For starters, let’s look at how AFC classifies the football playing Asian countries. All the nations and their respective associations are divided into three categories: the developed associations, the developing associations, and the emerging associations. The Big Asian football powerhouses, which have cemented their place on the World map, such as Japan, DPR Korea, South Korea, Iran, and Australia are classified as developed associations. In Southeast Asia, only one national association, Thailand, is listed among the developed associations. Meanwhile, India finds itself positioned in the developing associations’ classification, along with Inaugural champions Tajikistan and other countries such as United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Vietnam. Emerging Associations include teams like Philippines, Cambodia, Macau and many neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Aganistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
The AFC Challenge Cup is a tournament designed for improving the quality and popularity of the game in countries slotted in the Emerging Associations’ category, barring the fact that developing associations, like India, and even a developed association, like North Korea, have also appeared in the recent versions of competition. At stake in the tournament is a spot in the AFC Asian Cup, the most prestigious international football tournament in the continent – something the Bhangra Boys accomplished when they won the 2008 version, which was jointly hosted in Hyderabad and Delhi.
But before being able to enter the group stages of the AFC Challenge Cup in 2012, Team India has to get through Chinese Taipei, neighbors Pakistan and Turkmenistan’s challenge in Group B qualifying stage. This group’s matches will be held in Nasional Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Given the recent form of the Indians in the Asia Cup in Doha, this group might spring a few surprise results as India are grouped with last edition’s runners-up Turkmenistan and a very good Chinese Taipei side.
Myanmar will host the entire Group A matches at Youth Training Centre and Aung San Stadium in Yangon. The hosts Myanmar are clubbed together with Bangladesh, Palestine, and Philippines to form Group A. The matches will be played on the 21st, 23rd and 25th of March. Group C comprises of Maldives, 2008 runners up Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Cambodia. Group C matches will be hosted by Maldives at Rasmee Dhandu Stadium in Male, where twenty thousand fans would cheer their football idols, as Maldives prepare to put their challenge and face Cambodia on Monday to set things rolling.
Group D constitutes of the defending champions DPR Korea, along with the hosts Nepal and 2010 hosts Sri Lanka. The matches for this group will be delayed due to the playoff matches getting delayed between Afghanistan and Bhutan – playoff that will determine the fourth participating nation in Group D – which are to be played at Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Gurgaon. The Group D matches will be played out at Dashrath and Halchowk Stadiums in Kathmandu on 7th, 9th and 11th April, with the hosts playing their first match on the first match day against either Afghanistan or Bhutan.
It is worthwhile to mention here that the top two teams in each group would qualify for the main event of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup.
For all the low-mid-ranked team in Asia, AFC Challenge Cup is a great chance to cash in, to prove their mettle against a little better slotted teams in the FIFA rankings. Winning the tournament gives a direct entry into the AFC Asia Cup, something which team India enjoyed after they won the 2008 title in front of the home crowd at Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi. The Bhangra Boys got the better of a very good and disciplined Tajikistan side, thanks to a Sunil Chettri hat trick and a brilliant Baichung Bhutia goal. As Chettri looks forward to another AFC Challenge Cup, he will now be a senior player and would like to mentor many young players in the national team, as they try to unveil their talent on the Asian Stage.