Igor Stimac spoke of international games being in a “different galaxy” from ISL, whose lack of a big pool of Indian players meant some are overpaid, and said though there can be “no easy games for India”, his team is fit to last “three games in seven days” in the Asian Cup qualifiers making him “very confident” going into the fixtures next week.
Stimac has two deep creases running across a wide forehead but through most of the freewheeling interaction here on Tuesday, his first in three years as India head coach, which lasted 15 minutes more than a regular game of football, he radiated good vibes. India, he said, have a group of young players who, if nurtured well, can surprise in the years to come. Stimac, 54, also spoke on Croatia’s World Cup chances—they are in a difficult group but if they get out of it, no one will want to face them, he said—looked back at the 1998 World Cup where “we could see the final” and why coaching India is one of football biggest test. “The expectations are biggest but options limited, the base (of players) limited. I knew all that but came here to challenge myself.”
An important step in that challenge would be to take India to their second successive Asian Cup finals. The final round of qualifiers pits them against Cambodia (June 8), Afghanistan (June 11) and Hong Kong (June 14) in Kolkata. India can qualify as group toppers or one of the best five second-placed teams. For that, a good start would be important, said Stimac.
“Cambodia are likely to defend deep. We will have to deal with the ball in short areas in the front third. Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh will not get much space to operate.” They did well at the two-stage preparatory camp in Bellary and Kolkata, Stimac said of Singh and Kuruniyan who come off an iffy ISL season. Ditto Anirudh Thapa, Mohammed Yasir and Brandon Fernandes.
Some of them also played in different positions leaving them “confused” when they came to the national team. “And then people ask, ‘do they deserve to be in the team.’ But club form is something we can’t always rely on. We look for technically good players, players with good muscle strength and try to keep pushing them to achieve their limits.” The lack of form of his attacking midfielders is also why Stimac said he is hoping Sahal Abdul Samad can stretch his “great season” with Kerala Blasters. And that Liston Colaco’s muscle injury heals.
About the remaining teams in India’s group, Stimac said, Afghanistan and Hong Kong have “similar quality” but the former will be more physical and have players groomed in the lower leagues of Europe, “where they can play good organised football all year.” Hong Kong have four naturalised Brazilians and “we will have to see how much value they bring.”
“We have no foreign players to pass so our players need to improve their decision making.” That’s where international games are different from ISL, he said. “In ISL, you can receive the ball and think. In international games, they have to think before getting the ball.” So, India need to prepare differently, he said. “With more purpose in passing and more discipline in defending.”
“But I don’t want to see India defend for 90 minutes. You need to go into the game with the intention of hurting the opponent.” Stimac said that’s what they were looking to do against Jordan last Saturday where Yasir hit the horizontal and Sandesh Jhingan failed to keep a header on target and “then we conceded and the confidence dropped.”
Crucial to India not always sitting back are the young crop from Indian Arrows, the All India Football Federation’s development team that plays in I-League, and those who were part of the 2017 under-17 World Cup. They are strong, have good energy and fear no one, he said. “They showed that in the qualifiers of the Asian under-23 (last year).” India finished second in their group beating Oman 2-1, Krygyz Republic 4-2 in the shootout and losing 0-1 to UAE. With more international exposure, they will get better by the next World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying cycle, said Stimac.
Many players from that squad such as Suresh Wangjam, Akash Mishra, Asish Rai, Jeakson Singh, Rahim Ali and Aniket Jadhav also have senior India experience. Ali, Appuiah, Rahul KP are not part of this squad due to injuries but Deepak Tangri, who can play centre-back and central midfield, has been a late call-up because Ritwick Das got chicken pox, said Stimac.
“They have potential but we need to ensure that half of them don’t disappear.” The high salaries some of them may fetch in ISL can saturate motivation, said Stimac. Rumoured to be moving to ATK Mohun Bagan from Hyderabad FC, Rai’s annual salary is likely to be ₹2 crore. Salaries being inversely proportional to the size of the players’ pool, most India regulars earn between ₹1-2 crore per year from their clubs. “It is fairly obvious they are overpaid because otherwise they would get offers from other countries,” said Stimac.
Asked how he assesses the past three years, Stimac, whose term ends in September, said, “but I have been in India for only one.” “We played eight away games and none in India since 2019 so how do you objectively judge? We have suffered but, I can say, we didn’t fail. We changed the system and keep the ball more now, we showed we can hold our defensive shape against Qatar, we are still alive in the Asian Cup qualifiers, my first target when I took charge, and we could have an exciting future.”