FIFA World Cup: Controversial Goal Seals India’s Fate in Doha, but Broader Campaign Failings Highlight the Real Issues

India's Strong Start Fizzles Out as Qatar's Late Surge Knocks Stimac's Men Out of Qualifying.

India’s hopes of qualifying for the 2026 FIFA World Cup were dashed after a 2-1 defeat to Qatar at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on Tuesday evening. A controversial equalizer by Youssef Aymen turned the game on its head after India had taken the lead, and held Qatar at bay.

Early Promise, Eventual Heartbreak

India took the lead in the first half when Brandon Fernandes’s mishit shot fell perfectly into the path of Lallianzuala Chhangte, who slotted it into the net. This goal ended India’s 682-minute drought of scoring from open play. Mehtab Singh’s stunning goal-line block in the opening five minutes kept India in the game early on.

Despite not starting well, India grew into the match. They deservedly took the lead in the 37th minute, with chances created by Manvir Singh and Chhangte himself.

The Turning Point

FIFA World Cup: Controversial Goal Seals India's Fate in Doha, but Broader Campaign Failings Highlight the Real Issues

In the second half, Qatar introduced senior players Homam Ahmed and Khaled Ali, shifting the momentum in their favor. The controversial equalizer came when a Qatari free-kick, initially headed towards his own goal by Mehtab Singh, was parried by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. The ball appeared to go out of play, but the referees didn’t spot it. Mohialdin Alhashmi retrieved the ball from behind the line and flicked it back for Aymen, who scored.

Qatar’s Winning Goal

The decisive winner came without controversy. Qatar built a smooth attack through Tameem Mansour, and the ball fell to Ahmed Al-Rawi on the edge of the box. His side-footed curler nestled perfectly in the bottom corner, past a despairing dive from Gurpreet.

FIFA World Cup: Controversial Goal Seals India's Fate in Doha, but Broader Campaign Failings Highlight the Real Issues

India’s Missed Opportunities

India had opportunities in the second half, notably when Jay Gupta was played through one-on-one by a long pass from Gurpreet. However, he shot straight at Qatari goalkeeper Ali Nader. Other chances ended without shots on goal, despite great creative work from Sahal Abdul Samad.

Even a draw wouldn’t have sufficed for India, as Kuwait’s 1-0 victory over Afghanistan secured their second spot in the group behind Qatar. India finished third, ahead of Afghanistan only on goal difference.

A Campaign of Regrets

A campaign that began with promise, marked by an away win in Kuwait, ended in disappointment with just two points from the remaining five games. The refereeing decision to award Qatar’s equalizer will dominate discussions, but India’s own missed opportunities throughout the campaign were equally damaging. Particularly costly were the two matches against Afghanistan, from which India managed just one point.

Reflecting on the Journey

India’s journey in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers revealed fundamental issues beyond a single controversial goal. Over six matches, India scored only three goals and secured one win. Draws against Kuwait and poor performances against lower-ranked Afghanistan highlighted the team’s struggles.

The Indian team—players, coaching staff, and all involved—will be frustrated by the referee’s decision. However, it’s essential to introspect. The coaching and playing standards throughout the campaign did not reflect a team ready for the World Cup stage. Excuses about longer camps, player positions, and friendly matches need to be set aside. Accepting responsibility is the first step towards improvement.

Looking Ahead

India’s hope for a third consecutive Asian Cup qualification remains alive, with several rounds yet to be played. However, the dream of competing against the likes of South Korea and Australia in the World Cup will have to wait another four years. The gap to the top is wide, and India has significant ground to cover.

Ultimately, it wasn’t just one inch that made the difference on Tuesday night. Over six months, the gap was much, much larger.

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