Hero Intercontinental Cup 2023: A quick-start guide to the Blue Tigers’ opponents

BHUBANESWAR: Since its inception in 2018, the Hero Intercontinental Cup has not been just a four-nation tournament, but also a convergence of various footballing styles and cultures.

The inaugural edition was staged in 2018 in Mumbai, featuring three teams from three different confederations alongside hosts India – Kenya (CAF), Chinese Taipei (AFC) and New Zealand (OFC). In the final, India beat Kenya 2-0 thanks to a Sunil Chhetri brace to clinch the trophy.

While all four teams in the second edition belonged to AFC, they came from culturally distinct regions across Asia – Tajikistan, DPR Korea and Syria. Hosts India were unable to defend their title as DPR Korea edged Tajikistan 1-0 to win the final in Ahmedabad.

And now, the Hero Intercontinental Cup returns after four years to a new venue – the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, featuring three new guest teams – Mongolia, Vanuatu and Lebanon.

A first encounter with Mongolia

India kick off their campaign on June 9 against Mongolia, an opponent they’ve never faced before. Nicknamed the Blue Wolves, the East Asians are the lowest-ranked side in the competition, currently placed 183 in the FIFA Rankings, and became affiliated with FIFA as recently as 1998. Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world, making it tough to play in such harsh weather conditions. As a result, Mongolia hasn’t taken part in many friendly games in its history apart from the World Cup and Asian Cup Qualifiers and the EAFF Championship.

However, things have looked better recently, with Mongolia notching some notable results. In the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, they beat Brunei Darussalam 3-2 on aggregate to progress to the second round for the first-time. In the second round, they registered 1-0 wins over Myanmar and Kyrgyz Republic – two opponents India also beat to win the Hero Tri-Nation earlier this year. Mongolia also beat Yemen 2-0 in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers last year after suffering narrow defeats to Philippines and Palestine.

In March this year, under Japanese head coach Ichiro Otsuka, Mongolia faced a UEFA opponent for the first time, 77-ranked Georgia, who they held at 1-1 until half-time before going down 1-6 in a friendly game in Batumi.

Visitors from the South Pacific

After New Zealand and Fiji, Vanuatu will be the third-different opponent India will face from Oceania. Likewise, it will also be Vanuatu’s third time facing an AFC side after Guam and Indonesia. Part of the Melanesian subregion of Oceania, Vanuatu is an island nation with a population of just over three lakhs. Football is the most popular sport in the country and their best finish in the OFC Nations Cup has been fourth place on three occasions.

In June last year, Vanuatu travelled to Qatar for their World Cup Qualifiers as the pandemic regulations didn’t permit OFC to host matches in Oceania. Unfortunately for the Pacific islanders, the trip proved futile as a COVID-19 outbreak in their squad meant that they had to withdraw before their first game.

Like India, Vanuatu also took part in a tri-nation friendly tournament in March this year, beating Fiji 2-1 before losing 0-2 to Solomon Islands to finish second. While Vanuatu have played many more international matches than Mongolia in their history, the vast majority have come against Pacific nations. As such, a trip to Asia in a different landscape will be a brand-new experience for the Melanesians.

Rivalry renewed with Lebanon

Lebanon, the only opponent in the Hero Intercontinental Cup who India have previously faced before, are set to pose the biggest test for the hosts in Bhubaneswar. Nicknamed the Cedars, they are placed 99 in the FIFA Rankings, two spots above India. The meeting on June 15 is set to be the Blue Tigers’ eighth encounter with Lebanon. Of the previous seven, India have won one, drawn two and lost four games, with the last clash coming in the 2009 Nehru Cup opener in Delhi, where Lebanon emerged 1-0 victors. India, however, went on to win the tournament, beating Syria in the final.

The only time India beat Lebanon was way back in 1977 in the President Park’s Cup in Korea Republic – a 4-2 win. Indian captain Sunil Chhetri is no stranger to scoring against the Cedars, having scored once in each leg in the first round of World Cup Qualifiers in 2007, which the Cedars won 6-3 on aggregate. Now, more than a decade later, a much tighter contest is on the cards as the Blue Tigers bank on home support to win the trophy in the Odisha capital.

Lebanon, at the moment, are not in the best of form, having won only one of their last 12 matches stretching back to November 2021. They have also failed to score in their last five matches, most recently in a 0-2 defeat to Oman in a friendly in March.

Igor Stimac has a good relationship with Lebanon’s Serbian head coach Aleksandar Ilic, who was his club teammate at Cádiz CF in Spain in 1994. “Ilic is a good friend of mine because he joined Cádiz on loan when I was playing there, and I helped him to settle down. We have known each other for the last 30 years, and I wish him a warm welcome to India, although we’re going to make it very difficult for them,” said Stimac.

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