“It was the third game of the qualifiers, and I still hadn't gotten any minutes for the national team (in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers), and I was itching to get on the field,” says Ishan Pandita with a grin, sitting in his room in Bengaluru.

“The clock ticked to the 80th minute, we entered the ‘Pandita Time’ and luckily enough, I got the little wave to come on,” he says, “and then one thing led to another and I found the ball at the back of the net.”

The 24-year-old Pandita, who made his Indian debut last year, has earned himself the sobriquet ‘super-sub’ for scoring most of his goals after coming on as a substitute.

The Indian striker told Sportstar about the team’s glorious run to its successive AFC Asian Cup appearance and the impact head coach Igor Stimac had on the team.

“He's a good coach. He's a good human. Most importantly, on and off the field, we get along well and I owe a lot to him to be honest because he gave me my debut last year in Dubai when I had only played maybe 100 odd minutes in ISL (Indian Super League),” said Pandita.

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Igor Stimac had taken charge of the Blue Tigers in 2019 after the resignation of Stephen Constantine and won the first silverware with the team two years later as India beat Nepal to clinch the SAFF Championship.

Pandita made his debut under him against Oman in an international friendly, replacing Bipin Singh and threatened the back-four of the visitor for close to twenty minutes.

Earlier this month, when he came off the bench, he had his name on the score sheet, scoring his first goal in National colours as India made history, beating Hong Kong after 29 years.

Four Indian substitutes combined to demonstrate an ideal example of combination play against Hong Kong in injury time. Glan Martins’ pass to Brandon Fernandes was delivered to Manvir Singh on the right flank as the ATK Mohun Bagan forward crossed it for Pandita in the box.

'Your moment now'

The Jamshedpur FC striker guided the ball into the net with his first touch to end the game with a convincing margin as India finished the qualifying stage on top with a 100 percent win record.

“If I remember correctly, I think he (Stimac) told me, this is your moment now,” he says.

“You've got 10 odd minutes. Just do your thing, go in and get a goal for your country. And luckily enough, that's what happened.”

stimac

Igor Stimac's contract expires in September. "I hope he stays," says Pandita. - PTI

 

Stimac has had a reputation to provide promising youngsters a chance to shine, with former Real Madrid and Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic making his debut under him while Ivan Perisic was one of the youngsters to shine in National colours under the former Croatian centre-back.

For India, the 54-year-old has set the stage for several players along with Ishan, such as Rahul Bheke, Brandon Fernandes and Anwar Ali, with Ali opening the scoring within 60 seconds of the match against Hong Kong.

Stimac recently lambasted the All India Football Federation, stressing on more games for younger players for better performances.

“It’s clear that the season needs to be longer and players need more matches…. It needs to be done like in other countries, it needs to go for 10 months and players need to play 50 games and national team needs proper camps for preparation,” he said.

Ishan was on the same page and said that a longer season will help him as well as Indian football to grow.

“Only good things can come from this because I've been used to a normal season. Ever since I grew up and coming to India, I've only been playing that short ISL season. So, it's been a bit different.

“But now we can be looking forward to a bigger season with more minutes, more games and that's what helps you grow and improve. Putting minutes under their belts and growing, that's the most important thing,” he said.

Igor Stimac’s contract expires in September this year and ‘developments’ regarding his contract extension are still ongoing. In case he leaves, India will see a new man in charge of the team as it heads into the AFC Asian Cup 2023.

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“What happens to him and his future is not up to me,” said Pandita. “I hope he stays.” 

“Players and coaches come and go and we have to respect that and we have to understand what Stimac has done for us is fantastic and the results we put in are amazing. We couldn't have done it without him and his guidance off the field.

“If things don't go that way (Stimac stays), we will have a new coach coming in and we will have to keep working and at the end of the day, represent our country.

“It's the India logo we play for. So, whoever comes in, we'll be looking to do our best and make our country proud,” he added.

'Feet on the ground'

India qualified for the Asian Cup for the fifth time in its history, but has not got past the group stage since 1964. The last time India was eliminated from this tournament, it saw one of its best coaches, Constantine, leave the camp.

“I think morale is extremely high right now and to end things the way we did on top of the group and to finish the last game with a 4-0 win. It's fantastic. We're keeping our feet on the ground,” Pandita said, talking about the feeling in the camp.

“We have a long way to go but getting qualification that way was fantastic in front of our fans and now we have a year to prepare to put in the hard work again and hopefully do our country proud in the Asia Cup.”