New Delhi [India], November 18 (ANI): One down, five more matches to go! India began their Preliminary Joint Qualification - Round 2 for FIFA World Cup 2026 and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup campaign with crucial three points against Kuwait. Points that came in the form of their first Pre-World Cup victory away from home in more than two decades.
The Blue Tigers played two fiercely contested matches against the same opponents in the SAFF Championship earlier this year, both ending in draws after regulation time, as the former went on to be crowned champions after defeating Kuwait on penalties in the final. While the World Cup Qualifier on Thursday, November 16 was not as heated an affair as the previous two encounters, it was a tightly contested battle.
India head coach Igor Stimac, however, is not surprised, "We are not surprised with the result, but we always respect the opponents. I am very confident about our team and our capacities. We came here to win the game. I have full trust in my boys. They have worked really hard in the last four and a half years," said the coach as quoted by an All India Football Federation (AIFF) release.
Despite playing away from home, India seemed to have a lot of support at the Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium, where they stopped the hosts in their tracks.
"Kuwait has many technically skilful individual players, but they could not do it today. We were very patient and we knew that they are under pressure. We also had great support from the stands like we are playing at home. By winning here, we have a greater chance of getting the second spot in the group. We wanted Kuwait to become nervous and impatient and start putting long balls," said the coach.
The man of the moment was forward Manvir Singh, who swooped into the vacuum left at the top of the Kuwait box by a retreating Sunil Chhetri, as he connected perfectly with a Lallianzuala Chhangte cross to smash the winner home.
"I am really happy that I got the goal against Kuwait, but I must thank my teammates for it. It is all because of everyone's hard work," said Manvir. "I am lucky to score in a big match like this. Really looking forward to scoring more in the coming matches," he added.
Questions were raised about India's away form ahead of the World Cup Qualification campaign, after the Blue Tigers played three and lost as many in overseas matches earlier this year. In fact, the last time they won away was in the 2021 SAFF Championship final, a 3-0 victory against Nepal, in Male, Maldives. Since then, the Blue Tigers have played eight, drawn one, and lost seven away from home.
India centre-back Sandesh Jhingan believes the importance of the occasion (a World Cup Qualifier) made the difference for the Blue Tigers. He said, "The weight of the tournament makes a difference. We gave a good account of ourselves in Thailand (King's Cup). The Malaysia game (Merdeka Tournament) was, we can say, a one-off day after a long time. Of course, we were disappointed to lose there, but those games are to learn lessons. The whole point of friendlies is to learn from them to prepare for big games like these," he said.
There is no time, however, to dwell on such victories. They next face the mighty reigning AFC Asian Cup champions Qatar in their next match, at home in Bhubaneswar, and all the focus shifted to that big game, right after the final whistle on Thursday. In a fitting manner, the team spent no time lingering around the Kuwaiti capital after their win against the posts. Instead, they hopped on the next available flight back to India, the very same day.
"It was very important to start on a winning note. I am really proud of the team and of how we stepped up to the occasion. Kuwait are always a difficult side, and more so when you are playing away. We put on a strong and mature performance, but we cannot celebrate too much, get carried away, or think too big of ourselves," said Jhingan.
"We have another game in a few days, so it's all about recovery. We just have to keep going. It's just the first game. Let us keep getting better, dreaming big, and make the work bigger than your team," said Jhingan. (ANI)