India Head Coach Igor Stimac said the Indian national football team’s priority will be the Asian Games during a conversation with the AIFF Media Team on Monday.
The national team will be travelling abroad for the first time this year when they head to Thailand for the Kings Cup, but the coach said the focus will very much be on the Games in Hangzhou, which begin nine days after India’s trip to Thailand.
In the chat, Stimac speaks about the expectations at the two events, dealing with injuries, AIFF’s task force to study PIO (Persons of Indian Origin) footballers and the AFC U23 Asian Cup Qualifiers where Clifford Miranda will be in charge of the team.
Q. The King’s Cup will be India’s first test on foreign soil this year. After such a solid performance at home, winning three tournaments, how eager are you and the boys to replicate that form in Thailand?
A. I am very eager, but I need to check how eager the boys are when I see them. They’ve spent the last few weeks at the Durand Cup. The King’s Cup will be a different challenge from the previous home tournaments, where we were very successful.
We’ve got the toughest possible opponents (Iraq) in the first game, and we’ll see how we can handle that with such a short time for preparation
Q. The King’s Cup was your debut tournament with India in 2019, and we won the bronze. What are your memories from then?
A. Yeah, it was a tough tournament. We faced the toughest team in the first round back then as well - Curacao, who had players with great stamina and technical skills, most of them playing in the Netherlands.
We defeated Thailand with a totally different team where Sunil (Chhetri) was not involved. I left most of the boys from the first game on the bench, and we came out practically with the reserve team. It was really good to have our first win against Thailand in an away game.
Q. Sunil Chhetri is unlikely to be a part of the squad to Thailand this time. Obviously, he could be a big miss, but does that give you an opportunity to try out different things in attack?
A. Absolutely. That’s why we are following our boys at the Durand Cup too. And they are doing well. They are showing a good attitude, and putting on good performances. We have many things happening in September, so we’ll see who will get the opportunity and who will use it in a proper way.
Q. India’s first match is against one of Asia’s heavyweights Iraq. Will that give you a fair assessment of the kind of challenge India will be up against in the AFC Asian Cup?
A. No, not really. I keep mentioning that the most important thing is for our national team is to have the level of intensity we need in the game to do well. Whenever we have short preparation time, we cannot show compactness when we’re facing higher-ranked opponents
But crucially, we have stabilised the most important part of our game which is the defence.
Q. The next few months are going to be very busy for India, with the King’s Cup and Asian Games in September, Merdeka in October, World Cup Qualifiers in November and the Asian Cup in January. What will be the key for India to pass all these tests?
A. We need to be very wise and use the time, which will be given to us, properly. Because we know the time we get will not obviously be as we expected or enough for the ideal preparation.
There will be many youngsters in the King’s Cup team and we need to keep preparing ourselves for the Asian Games, and that’s our priority in September, not the results in the King’s Cup. Creating an environment and a team who will represent India in the Asian Games is our priority. That’s what we are focussed on for now.
Q. After the Asian Games draw, you said we will be fighting for the top spot against China. It’s a tournament, which follows a similar format to the Asian Cup. Going how far in the tournament will satisfy you?
A. It’s difficult to say because it’s an under-23 competition, and you don’t have much information about all the teams you’re going to face there. I think we are the only team that hasn’t played a single game with the under-23s in the last two years.
We’re going to face the biggest opponents in our group, China, in the opening game. And less than 48 hours later we have to play the next opponents, which is hugely surprising.
Q. In between so many international tournaments this year, the players will also be playing for their clubs domestically. Game time and match practice will not be a problem, but do you think keeping fit and avoiding injuries will be of prime importance?
A. Obviously, that’s the risk each club and national team in the world are taking these days. We can clearly see that there is less and less time for players to enjoy the rest they need. These things will need to change because there is too much pressure on the players.
We need to manage these things, and what I was doing so far was rotating the players, which is the only way because pushing players to play game after game every three days.
Q. While the senior squad competes in Thailand, the U23s will be in China for the AFC U23 Asian Cup Qualifiers. Will you have one eye on what’s unfolding in China?
A. I can clearly see there is good potential in the squad because most of the boys there are already enjoying ISL minutes and have certain experiences.
So they should be able to compete at this level, although we know they have a very tough group (UAE, China and Maldives). It’s not going to be easy. But we need to be very supportive towards our boys and Clifford, who proved last season with Odisha that he’s a good head coach.
Q. Lastly, the AIFF recently announced the formation of a Task Force to study the status of PIO footballers. What are your thoughts on that?
A. I’m very happy that we have started taking this issue very seriously and that the AIFF is showing seriousness about this topic. If we are looking to get great results for Indian football at the moment, it can happen with this action being successful and convincing the government to change laws and regulations, and allowing PIO players to represent India.
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