A day prior to India’s opening fixture against Bangladesh in the SAFF Championship, and with the morning practice session done, boys have already moved into the match zone.
Head Coach Igor Stimac maintained at the official pre-match press conference that “the first game is always the most difficult game”.
“Bangladesh are a known opponent, but we respect them immensely. In fact, we respect each and every team playing out here, and they have an equal chance to win the tournament,” the coach said.
Team captain Sunil Chhetri stressed that the “message from our coaching staff and Head Coach is very clear.”
“It is more and much more about how we play. We got to make sure that we minimise our mistakes, and we have to make sure that in every game no matter what, we give 100 percent. We cannot be complacent,” Sunil warned.
It’s been raining in patches, and the locals inform us that in October in Maldives, the rain won’t persist for an entire day unlike the monsoon. “We never take rain seriously this time of the year, unless there’s a threat of depression in the ocean. If it rains just take shelter, check your mobile for 10 minutes. By that time the rain will subside,” laughs the team coordinator Ibrahim, a former footballer. “Of course, you can also walk in the rain.”
Stimac made no secret that he will be making the most of ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC players having played in Maldives earlier in the AFC Cup. “We rely on Bengaluru FC and ATKMB players because not only they played here a few weeks back, but they started work with their respective clubs. And they had enough training sessions, and games in their legs. So their engines are good for such a tournament,” he expressed.
“We need to be careful as to how many minutes we give to each player corresponding to what they can do at the moment with regards to endurance capacities.”
Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who was part of the triumphant squad in 2015 added: “Teams have vastly improved from the last time we played them. Teams have become more organised, and they know how to play according to the other team’s weaknesses. You cannot take any team lightly anymore.”
Sunil, a veteran of 16 years in International football, stressed that he doesn’t want to lose any game for the country. “When you are young you play for a lot of things. As you get older, a lot of them diminishes. I’ve played over 100 games for India, I don’t have another 100 and I want to make the most of all the games I have left. I want to win a game if I am playing for my country. Both the games against Bangladesh have been extremely difficult ones. I don’t want to lose any game for my country,” he opined.
Stimac also made a mention of Udanta Singh, who got a “deserving call-up” to the National squad. “Udanta is one of 23 players we have here. He deserved that call with his last game playing for Bengaluru in the AFC Cup. Udanta wasn’t playing in his natural position in the past two years,” Stimac explained. “We need him to be back to his best – direct striking forward with his speed, executing and preparing the chances.”
Other than Sunil and Gupreet, Pritam Kotal was also a part of the triumphant squad in 2015. “It seems like yesterday that we won the SAFF Championship in Thiruvananthapuram in January 2016. I still remember the wild celebrations which we had in the dressing room after the triumph against Afghanistan in the final where everybody had danced. The support in the final was kind of exceptional. After all, the passion for football in Kerala is unparalleled,” he smiled. “The team spirit was exceptional, and everyone backed each other up. We had our recovery and volleyball sessions at the Kovalam beach, even on New Year’s Day.”
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, sitting next, quipped: “The edition of 2015-16 will stay with me forever. It was a wonderful tournament and a majestic final against a supremely well-knit Afghanistan side who were on the rampage. We deserved to be in the final and it was lovely to win it in front of the home crowd – win it for the people of our country, and for the fans who filled the stadium in numbers.” The kick-off tomorrow, October 4 is at 4.30pm IST.