The Indian men's and women's football teams are set to participate at the upcoming Asian Games in Hangzhou, China after the Sports Ministry decided to relax the existing selection criteria.
The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) had earlier refused to clear the Indian football teams for the Asian Games on the ground that they were not ranked in the top-8 in Asia.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) then made an appeal to the Sports Ministry to allow the men's and women's sides to take part in the prestigious event with national senior team head coach Igor Stimac also seeking Prime Minister Narendra Modi's intervention.
"Good news for Indian football lovers! Our national football teams, both Men's and Women's, are set to participate in the upcoming Asian Games," Sports Minister Anurag Thakur tweeted on Wednesday."
"The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India, has decided to relax the rules to facilitate participation of both the teams, which were not qualifying as per the existing criterion."
"Keeping in mind their latest performances in the recent times, the Ministry decided to grant the relaxation. I am sure they will put their best foot forward in the Asian Games and make our country proud," he added.
Since 2002, football in the Asian Games has been an U-23 affair with three players above that age are permitted in a team.
AIFF had earlier planned that Stimac would take an Under-23 Indian side to the September 23 to October 8 Asian Games after the Kings Cup in Thailand (September 7-10).
However, the Sports Ministry in a letter sent to IOA and all the National Sports Federations (NSFs) said that "for team events, only those sports which have achieved a ranking up to eighth among participating countries of Asia in the last one year should be considered for participation in Asian Games".
Indian men's team is nowhere close to the top-8 in Asia. It is currently in the 18th spot among countries under the Asian Football Confederation, while the women's side is ranked 11th.
The AIFF then appealed to the sports ministry to reconsider the decision with even coach Stimac making a plea for an exception to be made for the football teams in a social media post.
"A humble appeal and sincere request to Honourable Prime Minister Sri Narendra Modi ji and Hon. Sports Minister Anurag Thakur, to kindly allow our football team to participate in the Asian games. We will fight for our nation's pride and the flag! Jai Hind!" Stimac had tweeted, attaching screenshot of his statement as well.
The Sports Ministry then gave a green signal to the football teams.
There is a provision in the Sports Ministry's instructions sent to the IOA and NSFs, "Where, in the opinion of the experts of specific sports disciplines, and that of Sports Authority of India, participation of individuals and teams in relaxation of the above criteria is recommended with justifiable reasons, the same will be considered in the Ministry for appropriate decision."
AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey thanked the ministry for relaxing the selection criteria.
"Happy to inform that Ministry of Sports & Youth Affairs,& IOA have confirmed @indianfootball's participation at #AsianGames I thank Sh @narendramodi sir Sh@ianuragthakur ji & GoI for their support Equally important to our fans for your resolute for #IndianFootball," Chaubey tweeted.
Indian men's team has entered the sub-100 club in the FIFA rankings once again, having won SAFF championship where it played against Lebanon and Kuwait. It also won the Intercontinental Cup and the tri-nation football tournament featuring Kyrgyz Republic and Myanmar.
The women's team has also done well, beating Kyrgyzstan twice in the Olympic Qualifiers Round 1.