Stimac, Chhetri optimistic ahead of World Cup qualifying campaign

Stimac, however, stressed on the need for Indian football to grow "step-by-step" before dreaming of the big stage – a maiden World Cup appearance.

Chhetri and Stimac during the World Cup qualifier pre-match press conference.   -  Ritu Raj Konwar

India hosts Oman in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers on Thursday, with an away game against Qatar coming up on September 10.

With the Blue Tigers starting their qualifying campaign by taking on the two strongest teams in its group, Stimac is cautiously optimistic about their chances but emphasised on the bigger picture.

The Croatian stressed on the need for Indian football to grow "step-by-step" before dreaming of the big stage – a maiden World Cup appearance.

PREVIEW | New-look India begins World Cup qualifiers with Oman test

"Oman and Qatar are favourites in our group. Our first aim is to make sure we continuously participate in the last stages of the Asian Cup. In the meantime if we progress to the later rounds of the World Cup qualifiers, we will take it," he said.

"In football, you need to grow gradually. If there's a chance to skip a step, yes we will take it. But realistically, this team needs time."

He also made it clear that it is difficult to replicate the success made by other countries, notably his home nation Croatia.

Stimac also does not want his team to stick to one style of play. "We are building different styles. When we play Qatar in a few days, we need to be clever and smart. We should be ready to adapt our game."

Indian players going through their paces on the eve of their World Cup qualifier against Oman. PHOTO: Ritu Raj Konwar

 

So what was the most difficult thing for him to deal with since coming to India? "Injuries," said the 51-year-old. "It was the most difficult bit. I couldn't see some of the players who were under Stephen Constantine. Jeje (Lalpekhlua), for example. He was very important to the national team and we miss him. And now Amarjit (Singh Kiyam)."

Youth revolution

Stimac might have chopped and changed his starting line-ups throughout the King's Cup and the Intercontinental Cup, but one mainstay in the team was 18-year-old Amarjit, who played in all five games.

Such was his impact that captain Sunil Chhetri admitted that the team will surely miss the 18-year-old.

"Amarjit was our favourite. When I first saw him, I honestly thought it was too early (for him to be with the senior team). He is a livewire and his energy translated to every one of us," he said.

Speaking about the impact of youngsters, Stimac added, "Always believe in the youth because they bring great motivation to the team, they bring freshness and a fighting spirit. We have Amarjit, Sahal (Abdul Samad), Narender (Gahlot), (Anirudh) Thapa, Anwar Ali, Sarthak (Golui) and may others. When the day comes for Chhetri to leave, we need to make sure we are secure about our future."

Both Chhetri and Stimac said the loss of Amarjit Singh Kiyam to injury will be felt by the team.   -  AIFF

 

Despite the squad being filled with youngsters, Chhetri believes that all of them are "very aware" of what to do. "The leader in our team is our head coach. When I go into the dressing room, my only job is to be a good example. And I hope I can do that."

At 35, Chhetri doesn't have time on his side though and is eager to lead his country on the big stage. While he acknowledged that India's two opening qualifiers will be tough, he does believe in the team's potential.

"We respect all opponents and what is important is to have a strong belief. No opponent is unbeatable."

And at this stage of his career, what are his goals with the national team? "I hope to play as much as I can. I am not Amarjit, who is 18 and has time on his side. I just want to win every game."