The Indian football team is gearing up for its most significant challenge in 2024 as they prepare for the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar this month. Under the guidance of head coach Igor Stimac, who has been at the helm since 2019, the Blue Tigers are entering what promises to be their biggest cup tournament under the Croatian.

Despite a less-than-ideal conclusion to 2023, with exits from the King’s Cup and Merdeka Cup and a loss in a World Cup Qualifier against Qatar, it has been a remarkable year for Sunil Chhetri and the team. Stimac achieved his first title with the squad by winning the Tri-Nation International Friendly Football Tournament and also guided them to triumphs in the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship.

These tournaments, hosted in Manipur, Bhubaneswar, and Bengaluru respectively, saw the Indian football team not only clinch silverware but also showcase impressive dominance on their home turf. Over 11 games in these three tournaments, India remained undefeated, securing victories in seven matches, scoring 16 goals, and conceding only twice in the process.

As we look back at 2023, here’s a summary of how India performed in the tournaments they emerged victorious in the year gone by.

Tri-Nation Friendly International Football Tournament

India beat Myanmar in their opening game of the tournament before getting the better of Kyrgyz Republic in the second game, finishing top of their three-team group and winning the title. The Blue Tigers particularly displayed persistence and mental fortitude in their most challenging and final group game, which came against Kyrgyz Republic, a team ranked 12 places above them in the FIFA Rankings back then.

While India netted just two goals across three games, their defence stood out as the Blue Tigers recorded clean sheets in both their matches. The fans at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal also created an incredible atmsophere with more than 30,000 people cheering for the team in both their games.

Stimac also handed debuts to Rohit Kumar, Ritwik Das, Mehtab Singh, Mahesh Naorem in this tournament. While Kumar and Das are currently nursing injuries, Singh and Naorem are part of the AFC Asian Cup squad. 

Intercontinental Cup

Having lost the previous edition, India reclaimed the Intercontinental Cup at the Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar in June. With the top two sides in the four-team group advancing to the final, India finished top of their group unbeaten. They secured strong wins against Mongolia and Vanuatu before sharing the spoils with higher-ranked Lebanon in their final group game.

India clashed swords with Lebanon again in the final and clinched the title in style after a hard-fought victory. This was their first victory against Lebanon in 46 years. Across four matches during the tournament, India netted four goals while keeping clean sheets in all of their games. Jhingan, who started all four of India’s games and led the backline, was named the Best Player of the Tournament.

SAFF Championship

India continued their impressive form at home with yet another title under Stimac in Bengaluru. The tournament consisted of eight teams split into two groups. The Blue Tigers were the favourites but were going to have their task cut out with teams such as Lebanon and Kuwait also taking part in the SAFF Championship.

India started the tournament on a strong note, with a dominant win against Pakistan followed by another clinical display against Nepal. They were held to a draw by Kuwait in their final group game, finishing second in Group A behind the Gulf side, setting up a clash against Lebanon who finished as Group B toppers.

India were handed a big blow when Stimac received a red card in the final group game, with assistant coach Gawli taking charge of the team. However, despite Stimac’s absence, the hosts passed the test. They held their nerves to beat Lebanon on penalties and were put in a similar position against Kuwait in the final, with the match going into penalties. However, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s heroics between the sticks took India past the finish line.

Defensively, India were on top of their game once again. They conceded just two goals across five games in the tournament, both of which came in the matches against Kuwait. Before the final group stage game, India had recorded eight clean sheets on the spin, a new record in the making.

It was also a tournament to remember for Sunil Chhetri, who scooped the Golden Boot award after netting five goals. Additionally, he received the Best Player of the Tournament award. The India captain also matched Maldivian forward Ali Ashfaq’s tally of 23 goals, becoming the all-time joint-highest scorer in the SAFF Championship.