Clubs will have to play Indian centre-forwards to hope for the next Sunil Chhetri: India coach Igor Stimac

Chhetri, who is the highest-ever goal-scorer for India has been at the helm of India’s attack for nearly two decades.

Published : Jan 21, 2024 16:51 IST , Doha - 3 MINS READ

India coach Igor Stimac reacts during the India vs Uzbekistan AFC Asian Cup Group B game.
India coach Igor Stimac reacts during the India vs Uzbekistan AFC Asian Cup Group B game. | Photo Credit: IBRAHEEM AL OMARI/ REUTERS

India coach Igor Stimac reacts during the India vs Uzbekistan AFC Asian Cup Group B game. | Photo Credit: IBRAHEEM AL OMARI/ REUTERS

Igor Stimac, the head coach of the Indian national team, insisted that the Indian clubs will have to employ more players as consistent centre-forwards to find a successor of Sunil Chhetri.

“People are always looking at a question which we all know the answer to. Someone will. When the time comes, we need to see who is the most stable player in that position. How many centre-forwards do we have in India? Hardly any,” Stimac sighed.

“So, where do you think I’m going to find them from, Croatia? The people need to work on that seriously.”

Chhetri, who is the highest-ever goalscorer for India has been at the helm of the national team’s attack for nearly two decades, making his senior debut in 2005. At 39 years, he continues to be the country’s most reliable centre-forward.

Several forwards have come up in the Indian football framework over the last five years, starting with Sivasakthi Narayanan, Ishan Pandita, Rahim Ali, Gurkirat Singh, Ayush Chhikara and Parthib Gogoi, all starring for their respective Indian Super League (ISL) clubs.

But none of them could remain as consistent as the Indian captain. In the current ISL season, only Bengaluru FC and, at times, Chennaiyin FC, deploy Indians as conventional strikers.

RELATED: Allowing Indian-origin players to represent tricolour would be huge help for Indian football: Igor Stimac

“We need to allow young boys to start playing as a centre-forward for us, in the lower leagues, then the ISL and hopefully, in foreign clubs someday.

“And then hope that someone like Sunil Chhetri will appear to represent the country. But unless people start working seriously and on a long-term plan, nothing will happen.”

He cited the examples of Australia and South Korea, explaining how experience from foreign clubs has benefited the countries. “They’re bringing high-intensity football and game knowledge to their national team,” he said.

India lost both its group-stage games in the AFC Asian Cup 2023, with losses to Australia (0-2) and Uzbekistan (0-3) respectively. Four of the five goalscorers play in leagues outside their country.

“As a national team coach, I can work only with players provided to me through clubs of this system. I can only pick the best from that system because we pick also (players who are living only) in India,” Stimac said.

The 1998 FIFA World Cup bronze medal winner was appointed in charge of the Blue Tigers in 2019 and has won four trophies with them so far, three of them in 2023. He also guided India into the top 100 of FIFA rankings after five years.

“What we started in Indian football four-and-half years ago was, somehow, change the identity of football here. It involved the implementation of more technical football and providing young players with an opportunity to grow through their game for the national team,” he said.

“It was not an easy process. But we are getting gains. We have quite a young squad with few senior players who are very positive leaders, helping these youngsters to grow up and achieve.”

India still has an extremely slim chance of qualifying for the round of 16 in the Asian Cup. It faces a defensively resolute Syria, under Hector Cuper, and will have to beat it and then wait for other results to try and make the cut as one of the best third-placed teams.

“We are well aware that we are still far away from those top Asian teams but (we are) very confident, and very positive with our mindset about what needs to be done, which is to take India into Asia’s top 10 in the next four years,” Stimac said.

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