The last time the Indian men’s team got a half of football underway, they were one clean sheet away from a maiden knockout appearance at the AFC Asian Cup in 55 years. With the world watching, they stumbled and fluffed their lines.
Five months on from Sharjah, India begin life under new coach, Croatian Igor Stimac, with the King’s Cup in Buriram, Thailand, on Wednesday. A match against Curacao, a CONCACAF member, would be a welcome test to begin with, as the opposition is ranked 19 places above India’s 101. They are assured of a second match on June 8, against either Thailand or Vietnam, and here’s why these matches could offer a glimpse of where Indian football can go in 2019 and beyond.
New blood, new philosophy
Stimac, who was part of the Croatian central defence when they made the World Cup semi-finals of 1998, reportedly impressed the All India Football Federation (AIFF) technical committee with a list of players from India’s two leagues, the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League, that he’d been following and wanted to introduce into the national setup. The final 23-member squad bears Stimac’s ability to walk the talk, with call-ups for Michael Soosairaj, Rahul Bheke, Sahal Abdul, Brandon Fernandes, Adil Khan and goalkeeper Kamaljit Singh, all rewarded for a good domestic season or two.
Stimac has also talked about playing attacking football, and whether that translates to action will also be something to watch out for. Of his 23, only five are specialist defenders, and only four play in defensive midfield roles, though, and that looks like a sign that Stimac’s India could be a more attacking version of what his predecessor Stephen Constantine often liked to set his teams up to be.
Can India find someone beyond Chhetri to rally around?
India’s captain Sunil Chhetri will pull ahead of Bhaichung Bhutia on most men’s internationals across all age groups for India against Curacao, but this is the perfect opportunity for India to find some players to take a leadership cue from him and take India forward over the next four-year period.
At 34, Chhetri is still at the peak of his powers, and says he wants to carry on playing for India until the time he is “not needed anymore”. He needn’t worry about not being needed, though — the numbers reveal an over-dependence on him, especially in the final third. Not counting the South Asian Federation (SAFF) Championships where India fielded an U-23 team, India’s 12 competitive matches over a 14-month period up to the Asian Cup saw Chhetri score 11 of India’s 19 goals. With Chhetri’s regular strike partners Jeje Lalpekhlua and Ashique Kuruniyan out with injury, this is a chance for the likes of Balwant Singh, Farukh Choudhary or Manvir Singh to make a statement, as and when they get any minutes on the pitch.
The need to get results and gain exposure
The job ahead of Stimac is not an easy one — he has to be realistic about balancing results in Buriram, and the Intercontinental Cup in Ahmedabad in July — with the need to give enough players exposure ahead of the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying that begins in September. At 101, India are currently 18th in Asia, and that should place them in the third pot for qualifying among the 40 teams from the confederation that will go into World Cup qualifying. A top-two finish in a five-team group ensures progress in World Cup qualifying as well as a near-assured slot in the 2023 Asian Cup, and India’s recent displays against Asian nations suggest they would fancy their chances of keeping themselves in contention for second or third, which would still keep them ahead in Asian Cup qualification rounds going forward.
The Intercontinental Cup against Syria, Tajikistan and North Korea will also provide India a good idea of where they stand post the Asian Cup. Most crucially, this is a phase where the younger players who are now India regulars must cement their place, while the newcomers must push them hard for starting places.
What is the best combination?
Reigning Caribbean Cup champions Curacao themselves have taken a young squad to Thailand, but have quality in their ranks, with 13 players based in various divisions of Dutch football. India’s best bet might be to start with a conventional 4-4-2, and then consider bringing on an extra attacking player or midfielder if the situation demands it.
How’s this for a starting line-up then? — Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Sandesh Jhingan, Subhasish Bose, Udanta Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Pronay Halder, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Sunil Chhetri, Manvir Singh.