The Indian Senior Men’s Team will be back in action on home soil after nine months, in the Tri-Nation Football Tournament from March 22, 2023, and Head Coach Igor Stimac has asserted that his side will do everything to win it.
Imphal will welcome the Blue Tigers (106 in FIFA Rankings) for the first time, and the tournament will also feature Myanmar (159 in FIFA Rankings) and the Kyrgyz Republic (94 in FIFA Rankings). A week before the first game, AIFF Media caught up with Stimac in the National camp in Kolkata. He spoke at length about his expectations from the tournament, analysis of the opponents, his four-year journey as India coach, the all-important preparations for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, and much more.
You emerged in the Indian Football scene a few months after India played the 2019 AFC Asian Cup final rounds. You have succeeded in leading the team to another AFC Asian Cup qualification. Does it fully satisfy you?
No, it does not. That’s only the first step in what we’re trying to achieve. When I joined, the main goal was to reconstruct the team, to play a different type of football, and to win the hearts of the Indian people with the style of play. I would say that we were quite successful in that, having in mind that our work was disrupted by the pandemic for almost two years. We didn’t have a chance to play any home games. There were no friendlies and no qualifiers.
Last year in Kolkata, we played three beautiful games where we proved to everyone that when we get proper time to work, we can achieve better and play good football. But it’s the second step that is the most challenging one. We are well aware that we’re going to face the continent’s best teams in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. And to do well in such a competition, we need to organise ourselves in a different way, with different style of football and maintain verticality in our game.
In another two months, you will complete four years as India’s head coach. Looking back on it, how eventful has your journey been?
It has been a difficult journey. I say that because the expectations are huge on India. It’s wonderful to have dreams. There is no life without dreaming about achieving things. And to succeed, time is precious. You can count on fulfilling your dreams if you are provided time to work. I just hope that the next eight or nine months will serve us well to prepare for the AFC Asian Cup. The calendar for the next season is going to be difficult. We want to utilise the September, October and November international windows well, and I hope all stakeholders of Indian Football get involved and help the national team.
In 2019, you said your job is to awaken the hearts of the Indian people and we can do that only if we play stylish football. How far have you managed to achieve your goal?
I would again say that the qualifiers in Kolkata proved that we can play good football. I’m quite sure that I’m not arrogant in saying that everybody was happy after those games, satisfied with the football India presented. And we are going to stay on that path – not losing our souls, whoever is on the opposite side. We are not going to go out on the pitch with fear, that’s for sure. It’s something I’ve been pointing out from the very first day of my arrival here. Now, we have a different mindset. We are looking to find a way to win the games without the fear of making mistakes, of passing the ball and going forward.
We are now 10 months away from the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. Are we ready? Are we moving in the right direction?
At the moment, we are not completely ready for the AFC Asian Cup. In this March window, we will be crediting players for their achievements this season, recognising their performances, and giving them a chance to fight for a place in the team. The competition for places in the final squad for the AFC Asian Cup will go all the way until the end. The spots are open for everyone with an Indian passport, and not only those involved in the ISL.
Our focus now is on all players involved in Indian Football – whether it is the Santosh Trophy or the I-League. So, I’m using this opportunity to invite all these boys who are dreaming about representing their country in the AFC Asian Cup to work on themselves and put in lots of hard work. Our scouting team will go everywhere in the next eight-nine months to watch everyone. We’re going to give an opportunity to all those who we think might help us in the AFC Asian Cup.
Introducing new faces, and trying out youngsters has been your style from the beginning. But now, we find the core group of your squad is slowly undergoing a change. What’s your take on this?
In my first two years, we gave the chance to many players. It seemed to many people and followers of football in India that we were somehow experimenting. No, we were looking for those players who can handle the pressure of international football. We were giving chances to everyone who was doing well domestically. As simple as that. The door of the national team was wide open. We were looking for players with more technical ability, more strength, with a good mindset, with a positive attitude, good behaviour and a strong character. And to check that, you need to give everyone a chance.
There were occasions where we suffered heavy defeats like against the UAE, and we were not ashamed of it. That game served its purpose. It proved to us who can and who can’t (handle the pressure). Now, we are at a point where we have a very clear picture of all players individually in India at the moment. There will be competition between them to make it to the AFC Asian Cup team. In the remainder of the year, they will be playing for their clubs in the league, representing them in the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup.
Regarding the change in the core group of players, we need to understand that some of them are of a certain age now. It’s difficult to say, but goodbyes need to come sometime.
Sunil Chhetri was nowhere to be seen this season. He was on the bench, waiting, preparing himself, working to take his weight down a few kilos, which is very difficult to handle at this age. But when it was most needed, he was there for his club, helping them, and taking them to the finals. He scored the most decisive goals. At his age, this will probably be his farewell from football. I’m quite sure that the upcoming months will be the best for Sunil Chhetri.
Along with him, Sandesh (Jhingan) and Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu) are the core strength of our team. I’ve never hidden that. I was never running away from the truth. They are free guys, with great characters, strong mindsets and a good mentality, which is a basic platform for us to build the team around. But of course, we need to keep their age in mind. Obviously, Sunil may be playing his last season, and definitely his last AFC Asian Cup. Gurpreet and Sandesh may be there for four, or five years.
But the rest of the team is just comprised of youngsters. They are our future, which is amazing because that’s something which we can build on. We need to be patient with them. And I’m quite sure that the experience our young players have got in the last four years will serve them well at the AFC Asian Cup.
Surely, you have already made your assessment of the two rival teams. Is it possible to share some insight?
Yes, we have analysed our opponents. Myanmar are the lower-ranked one but they have changed their approach to the game in the last few years. They try to play middle-press football, which could be challenging because if you don’t break them down in the first 45 minutes, it gets more and more difficult. It’s all about patience, quick passing and going into the final third with quality against such teams. Playing simple football, passing the ball vertically, and winning the yards behind the defenders will be the most important and crucial things.
Kyrgyz Republic are a very well-organised side. They are better ranked than us. They play very good quality football. I was watching their game against Russia. They played wonderful football against such a strong and competitive side. They have many quality players with strength and speed. It’s going to be very interesting.
What are your expectations and targets from the Tri-Nation International Football Tournament?
Winning it. We are the hosts, and we’re going to do absolutely everything to win the tournament. Obviously, it’s not going to be easy because we’ve got a lot of players who will be involved in the ISL Final, who will be physically and mentally exhausted. Half of them will be in a worse position because they will be defeated in the final. And my job is to regenerate them, help them bounce back and find the strength and ability to play these two games and represent India in a good way.
Lastly, what’s your message to the fans in Imphal?
Stimac: From our part, we’re going to do everything, and use the time given to us properly and wisely to represent this beautiful country at the upcoming AFC Asian Cup. Let’s dream together. I hope we’re going to do well. I can guarantee one thing for sure – we’re going to give everything we have on the pitch, wherever we go and whoever we play against.