In the days leading up to India’s final attempt at qualifying for the next edition of the AFC Asian Cup main round, the National coach Igor Stimac had been asking his players to show one attribute in abundance – “braveness”. One could feel the eagerness of the former Croatian World Cupper, who earnestly wanted the Indian national men’s football team to come out of the shadows of being dubbed as underachievers. It had been long since the team asserted itself in the continental forum. Stimac wanted his ‘Blue Tigers’ to roar on the field with a fortitude that would make them dominate the opponents’ psyche.
A new look Indian team did heed their gaffer’s urgings to a great degree and realised the task of qualification with a creditable show of authority. India won all its three matches in the group D engagement of the final qualifying stage scoring eight and conceding just once. It was for the likes of Cambodia, Afghanistan and Hong Kong to discover the developing might of India as each of them yielded to the newfound aggression of the Blue Tigers.
“It is all about the attitude, the hunger and the passion. They (Indian players) have to show the braveness, the tiger’s heart. They have to behave like a tiger on the pitch and have to earn respect from their opponents by showing the tiger’s heart in their performance,” Stimac gave an overview of what one would expect to see in the youthful Indian team that he reared in the three years of his headship. Stimac, himself a part of a very successful Croatian national side which won the bronze in 1998 World Cup, was looking for that effective artillery ready to dominate the opponents in the upcoming battles.
Grooming the young
There were clear signs that the cubs he had groomed were now ready to be unleashed as the Blue Tigers. It was time for the likes of Ashique Kuruniyan, Sahal Abdul Samad, Liston Colaco, Jeakson Singh, Akash Mishra and Anwar Ali to assume a larger responsibility for the National side. In the preceding years, Stimac tested and experimented with his team giving debuts to scores of players scouted from different Indian Super League sides. Picking up from the side left behind by his predecessor Stephen Constantine, Stimac understood the need to have a youthful, technically sound and physically robust team that would be able to deliver in the international arena. After putting to trial scores of aspirants, Stimac made his final selection ahead of the decisive stage of Asian Cup qualifiers and the result was a resounding success. The National coach was often heard suggesting and requesting the ISL clubs to allow more playing time to the Indian players. Stimac seemed to have his propositions answered when the ISL decided to curtail the number of foreigners on the pitch to four players per side from the 2020-21 season.
India’s progress through the Asian Cup qualifiers prominently reflected this transformation. India stuttered through the second round managing just seven points from a win (against Bangladesh) and four draws in eight matches. The country’s World Cup dreams evaporated here while only qualification to the continental competition remained a possibility. India bid and earned the right to host the final round of the qualifiers renewing the hopes of a historic back-to-back qualification to the finals. The support from the galleries of the huge Salt Lake Stadium offered the right setting for Stimac to execute the final assault.
“Now we have a pool of players offering multiple selection options for every position in the desirable formation. It gives me nice headaches when it comes to deciding the starting eleven. I can say that there is very little difference in the standard of the players and as a coach it feels nice to be in that position,” Stimac said in a tone reverberating with the confidence of a proud general overseeing a powerful army. The teams that Stimac fielded spoke much about his plan to find the combination for the future making his selection heavily in favour of youth than experience.
“I am looking to find the best set of players who show the right attributes in term of speed and intensity during training and matches,” Stimac clearly signalled the departure for many of the seniors as he set his mind to the preparation for the main round of the Asian Cup, which will be played after eight months. The only striking exception in the new arrangement remained the evergreen Sunil Chhetri, who at 37 gave his youthful colleagues enough to learn about skill and fitness. Chhetri scored four out of the eight goals for India showing that he is still the boss in the centre of India’s attack. The Indian captain completed 17 years of his association with the senior National side, scoring 84 goals in 128 appearances. The incredible statistics surpassed all the achievements of his compatriots, placing Chhetri alongside the Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas among the all-time top scorers of world football. However, there were also Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in goal and Sandesh Jinghan in deep defence providing the balance as seniors.
“I feel really energised and honoured after getting to this milestone. It is not very common to be a part of the national team for so long. There aren't any players in the country and not many around the world, who have the opportunity of representing the national side for such a long period. What took me this far was perhaps the zeal to give my best whenever I wore the national colours,” Chhetri said, after seeing India past the qualification mark.
Stimac was quick to point out the secret of his key striker’s enduring relevance. “He has the passion, fitness and the commitment to perform at the highest level and reach that figure,” Stimac said. “Sunil will not retire before scoring his 100th goal, so you (the media) stop asking about his future plans. Roger Milla of Cameroon scored (in the World Cup) when he was 42, there’s nothing wrong in seeing Sunil for another few years,” was how the national coach sought to end speculations about the talismanic striker’s future.
It was after a long time that Chhetri was not feeling alone in the responsibility to deliver for the national side. There were a group of committed youngsters who were raring to go. Sahal Samad’s injury-time winner against Afghanistan can be considered a turning-point in India’s AFC Cup qualification story. India pulled up a late lead in the 86th minute off a Chhetri free-kick just to see the Afghans equalising two minutes later. When a draw seemed inevitable, Samad came in as the Indian captain’s substitute in the 89th minute and produced the goal of the very first opportunity. India picked up the full quota of points to virtually seal its Asian Cup qualification berth. Stimac tried a new formation keeping Ashique, Samad, Liston, Jeakson, Suresh Singh Wangjam and Manvir Singh in the team’s attacking array. The defence also had a new look with undaunted Anwari Ali, Roshan Singh and the very talented Akash Mishra joining Sandesh at the backline. There were at least six, at times seven, players freshly introduced from the talent pool that Stimac curated in the three seasons of his stewardship.