In the not-so-distant past, Indian football fans erupted in euphoria as India triumphed in a thrilling showdown against Kuwait during the SAFF Championship final in July 2023. The Blue Tigers clashed with Kuwait not once, but twice – the first bout ended in a tense draw, only to culminate in a heart-pounding penalty shootout victory during the finals in the electric atmosphere of Bangalore.
India are slated to play Kuwait in their den, which carries the weight of destiny, a clash in the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027 Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2 next week. If we trust the statistics, India have emerged victorious against Kuwait on their home turf only once in a friendly match by 3-2 in 2004. However, there’s hope that this time, the tides may finally change, and we could witness results that will be etched into history books.
The anticipation of playing two matches against Kuwait and Qatar in the World Cup qualifier matches is exciting and head coach Igor Stimac hasn’t held back in sharing his views on the upcoming showdown and the preparations!
The business end of the year is here for the National Team. We play the World Cup qualifiers and then the Asian Cup. What are your thoughts on the team’s development so far?
Igor Stimac: Yes, we have entered the new phase of our work, and we know it’s going to be very hard and difficult on the boys. We are very optimistic about what’s ahead of us. We know that the next few months until March will be very difficult. We might face some problems during this process. But we are very optimistic then that once the players, who are missing now, are back, we will become solid again and show strength on the pitch, no matter who we play against. So, the focus at the moment is how to replace those boys who were starting 11 players, such as Ashique Kuruniyan, Anwar Ali and Jeakson Singh (Currently nursing injuries). They were our strength in the latest successes we had. These boys played very good football; they were adding extra value to the whole team.
We need to find a way to make a new composition to balance the team which will provide strength, especially at the back because we started conceding some goals, which I did not like lately, although some of the goals came after very poor refereeing decisions. That’s our priority now, but anyway, I’m glad to see that the boys are playing regularly in ISL and most of them are taking main roles in their teams and playing with lots of responsibility. It is a good and positive thing for the national team.
Do you find the group tough?
Yes, the group is very tough and challenging because we know there will be no easy opponents, and they are the top teams. So apart from that, from the third pot we got by far the best opponents available (Kuwait). So, the group is tough at the moment, but we need to approach it game by game and prepare for it. And as far as I’m concerned and with my experience in football, November to March will be difficult. To prepare well and to make sure that the national team gets enough time to secure the second spot in the group and qualify – that is our plan.
You are getting the squad together for a few days before the first game. How much will that help in getting the boys back to the desired level?
We started planning this camp a long time ago and we’re going to have four to five days to execute some training sessions and drills and prepare well for the first game against Kuwait which is important because it’s the opening game. We are quite clear about what needs to be done. It’s going to be a very difficult and different game, so the boys need to adapt to that as soon as possible. And we are not going to have much time to do so, only one training session prior to the match day. So, difficulties and challenges will be there, but once again, we know what we can bring to the pitch, we know how to handle the situation. All we need to do is stay focused and well-concentrated on the task we’re going to put to the players.
Does a different pitch change your tactic in any way or form or remain the same?
Poor pitches will not allow you to play and pass the ball at a certain speed which is needed for you to open the gaps and spaces between the lines. So, there will probably be less risk taken at the back, and we’re not gonna take too much risk in such games. We’re going to try to overcome those difficulties with the poor pitch in such a way that we try to play much more vertical football than it was what you could see in the past months. It’s something we need to discuss, we need to try to execute the drills on the pitch on the new approach. We are quite confident that such an approach can bring us success.
We have played a couple of heated matches against Kuwait in SAFF. How do you plan to approach this game?
We could clearly see that Kuwait have enough quality in them, and we knew that the ranking they had was not a realistic reflection of the quality they have in the team. They are a far, far better side. After the game they played against Emirates, which was very competitive, it’s quite clear that they can hurt any opponents. So, we need to be very focused, and very concentrated.
The main question here is how quickly our players can switch to the international mode, which is needed in this game. Anyway, we’re going to have enough time this November, five days should be enough for them to switch on, to be aware of what needs to be done. And we’re going to help them to do their best.
It seems India have been in a rivalry against Kuwait that’s formed over the last couple of matches during SAFF. So how do you as a coach handle the situation in terms of psychology, before going into such a match?
The games we played against them (SAFF Championship) came after a long camp preparation. And our boys should not rely on the latest success in the quality football which we played against Kuwait because now we are in a different position. The boys are coming from a different pace of football. So, we’re not gonna lie to ourselves and expect top quality football we’re going to present there. Our focus is on the result and how to obtain the result in the opening game of the World Cup qualifiers. My advice for players will be to forget as soon as possible what happened in June and July against Kuwait and to concentrate on new challenges and new developments that might be ahead of us. And that’s the best way of approaching this game.
Our form at home and away from home has been very different. How do you plan to address that?
You are right, and we are not hiding from that- we are aware of it. But some of the refereeing decisions were affecting our game, because to be honest, in the last two tournaments, we were victims of some poor referee decisions. It affected our boys. There was something wrong with our game against Iraq. The boys played brilliant football, the boys controlled the game, we were twice in the lead and then the referee came and made one poor decision which took us to the penalty shootout which can always take you in any direction. It happened to us. After a couple of poor refereeing decisions in games against Iraq and Malaysia, we were thrown back seven or eight places in the rankings, which is terrible. That’s the main reason why I’m requesting the AIFF to organise as many home matches for India.
In recent times, Mahesh Naorem Singh, especially in the matches away from home, has been one of the key performers. What do you think has set him apart in terms of mentality?
I am very happy with him. He’s one of those players who is enjoying his football with the full potential. He’s a very talented player, he doesn’t have any fear or problem while coming in front of the goalkeeper. The easy approach he has when he comes in front of the goal and scores goals is something that is bringing and adding an extra quality to our team. Mahesh is the player at the moment we are looking up to and who is giving us extra stability in this position as a first option and is giving us extra quality in passing, holding the ball and providing chances and key passes.
Last time, we played Qatar twice, both times away from home. How different could it be this time when we will face them on our home turf?
It would be very different, and we need to be on a very different side playing at home. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to go up there high and try to surprise Qatar and keep them under high pressure for 90 minutes because we have problems which I spoke about earlier. But we’re going to find a way to hurt them. They have Carlos (Queiroz), who is a new manager there and they are giving some opportunities to new players. But there might be a chance for us to surprise them.
In the last qualifiers, we had a group which we thought was a comfortable one and we could do something. But somehow it ended in disappointment. At this time, can we emphatically say that we are far more prepared than we were?
You know, in 2019, we started our qualifiers at the beginning of our process, redeveloping the team, implementing many new young talented players and trying to find ideas of 11 to 15 players, who represent the country now. That’s all behind us. We have a very solid team, we have certified players, who are there on the main list with another 13 players as a reserve option. So, the second phase has started. There will be some difficulties on our way because injuries are something that is never welcomed in football. We had a stable team with first-choice players a few months ago, and now we’re missing three of them.
Jeakson was one of the strongest pillars of our team and our success. His stable form and his help in the build-up phase and good covering capacity for the front players are something which has given stability to the team. Now it’s a chance for him to bounce back to the national team, take that role over, and show everyone that he can be that guy who will keep playing the same way. We just hope that the boy, who will get the chance in his place, will have a positive attitude and will add extra quality to the team.
Do you stay confident or apprehensive?
I’m always confident. I have to be confident because that’s the only way for the coach to lead the team. Never mind the difficulties. But I’m also realistic. I need to point out the challenges and worries which are there. Everyone needs to be well aware of what kind of difficulties we’re going to face. So that’s the best way of approaching the game, just being realistic but positive, always positive.
So as far as I’m concerned, we’re going to go all out with the intention to win the game. Is that going to happen? We don’t know. But intention will be there. Definitely.
And the same thing will happen against Qatar. We are going to try to find a way to win against Qatar at home. As simple as that. The important thing once again, is to mention that whoever is there, whoever is representing the country, he needs to leave everything on the pitch for the country.
We played in Bhubaneswar in the Intercontinental Cup earlier. What are your thoughts on the facilities over there, which they provide to us?
We were very happy in Bhubaneswar and I would love to be there as much as possible with our national team because the facilities, the training, the quality of the staff and the organisational skills are fantastic. That’s something each coach would love to have every time he gets the players together. Another point is obviously the travel to training. We have a wonderful gym there, we have wonderful training pitches. People in the government there are very nice, they are there at any point to provide everything that is needed for the national team. So, I use this opportunity once again, to give a big thanks for the support they give to the national team and I just hope that we can pay them back with another win.