Four years ago, on a warm September night, in a 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers outing against Qatar, a gritty India survived a wave of attacks to hold the powerhouse of Asian football to a goalless draw in Doha. The man who guided India from the sidelines was Head Coach Igor Stimac.
The Croatian would once again sit on the bench when India will cross swords on Tuesday with Qatar again in another World Cup qualifying match, this time for the 2026 edition in the US, Canada and Mexico.
No doubt, Stimac and his wards would take the pitch at the Kalinga Stadium a far more confident lot than they were at the start of the campaign. The win against Kuwait in the tie brought a magical change to the entire scenario. Now there are serious expectations surrounding Sunil Chhetri and his men; a positive result against Qatar would definitely not leave anyone bewildered.
Stimac agreed that India are now perfectly capable of pulling off a surprise or two, but is not ready to lower his guard.
“We have analysed Qatar from every angle and position and know very well what they are capable of in terms of speed and strength. Their defensive and offensive positions are immaculate, which they demonstrated against Afghanistan by scoring eight goals. They could well have scored eight more. It is going to be very difficult and I just want the boys to enjoy their game in the next match. The first and bigger part was accomplished by winning against Kuwait, now I want the boys not to take any pressure and show their quality against Qatar,” he said.
“It is very motivating as we defeated the best opponents for the second position. We have to be in the top two positions to go to the next round of the qualifiers so, this helps in our goal of reaching the next round. Qatar are one of the pre-tournament favourites from the group. We do not have high expectations but we know we have a chance and we have to grab that with both hands,” said Stimac.
The Head Coach, whose boys had a good day of training on Sunday, said there was no new-found confidence in the team. “I would say that we were never short of self-confidence. But each win boosts your self-confidence. We showed that we had high self-confidence in the King’s Cup and Merdeka Cup.”
“We have worked on the change of the mindset over the last few years. Now our boys believe that they can beat anyone,” he pointed out. Coming back home from Kuwait with three points in the pocket is, according to Stimac, a matter of huge relief and a creditable achievement.
“Our main worry was the impact on the quality of the starting XI owing to the injuries. Losing the likes of Anwar (Ali), Ashique (Kuruniyan) and Jeakson (Singh) was a big blow for us as they were the young players who brought energy and quality to this side. But we were able to get over that crisis against Kuwait by sheer hard work and also by having a good pool of players for the national team that helped us find the right replacements,” he said.