India’s 4-0 win against Pakistan on Wednesday showed why this fixture is not currently one of football’s great rivalries but also why it could be. They may not meet often, this being a first game since 2018, and one may have fallen far behind the other, but the potential is there if Pakistan can get their act together off, and then on, the pitch.
Sparks can fly, as the opening game of the South Asian Cup showed. India’s coach, Igor Stimac, caused a mass brawl just before half-time when he stopped Pakistan’s Abdullah Iqbal from taking a quick throw-in. The Croat pushed the ball out of the defender’s hands, earning a red card and causing tempers to flare on a warm night in India’s tech capital of Bengaluru.
With his team 2-0 up, Stimac did not need to get involved and the headlines should have been all about the India legend Sunil Chhetri getting international goals 88, 89 and 90 in a hugely impressive career. It was the kind of result you would expect from a team ranked 101 playing in front of their own fans against opponents 195th in the world.
Preparations were far from ideal in both the short and long term. Visas were only received on Monday. With Pakistan in Mauritius, where they lost all three games in a four-nation tournament against Kenya, Djibouti and the hosts, it meant a rush to get to southern India, with players arriving at different times.
“The problem about the travel was we received the visas very late and a lot of problems in Mumbai at the airport with the immigration,” said the assistant coach, Torben Witajewski. “So it was tough for the guys. The last group arrived at half past one in the hotel today [Wednesday]. After 16 hours.”
It may help explain an early goalkeeping error when Saqib Hanif had possession just outside the area, tried to clear but missed his kick to gift the ball to the man who has scored more goals than anyone else active in men’s international football with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Then a handball after 16 minutes resulted in a penalty and Chhetri’s second and from then it was always going to be tough against a well-drilled team who did not have to get out of second gear. India, more fluid in possession, tactically flexible and solid, were rarely in danger.
In short, they looked very much a team and this relative stability is what Pakistan can aspire to. This country of 240 million people with a proud and passionate football history should not be home to the 17th worst side in the world. That they are in the bottom 10% is mainly due to off-field issues. There have long been problems and a Fifa ban in 2021 was a result of infighting and political interference.
The ban may have been lifted last summer but there is still a Fifa-appointed normalisation committee in place to organise new elections. The committee told the Guardian that the process has started but that with legal issues and establishing voter lists, it will take some time. It will likely be next year.
All the while India are making strides and showing how it can be done. There is a new Indian Super League that has become an established part of the calendar, with the winners entering the Asian Champions League, which brings possible clashes with Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and more besides. India have qualified for the 2023 Asian Cup when they take on Australia, Syria and Uzbekistan. There have been some good results with recent wins over Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon.
In seven and a half years from March 2015, Pakistan played only seven games. It means that there is next to no international experience in this squad, which for the first time has thrown together players in Europe (Islamabad is more open to taking advantage of the diaspora than New Delhi) and those based at home. By the time the Falcons have played Kuwait (an invitee to this regional South Asian competition) and Nepal this coming week, there will have been seven in this year alone.
For most nations, this is normal but for Pakistan this is progress. If more, much more, can be made in the years to come then a football game between India and Pakistan will really be one not to miss.