AIFF Media Release
NEW DELHI: After three consecutive tournament wins, a 16-match unbeaten streak at home and a re-entry into the top 100 of the FIFA Rankings, the Indian senior men’s national team will head abroad for the first time this year in September for the King’s Cup in Thailand.
Up against a heavyweight side like Iraq in the first game, it will be a challenge unlike any other the Blue Tigers have faced in 2023. However, head coach Igor Stimac’s biggest centre of attention in a hectic month of football is the Asian Games in China, beginning nine days after India’s trip to Thailand.
In a chat with the-aiff.com, Stimac speaks about his expectations from the King’s Cup and the Asian Games, the importance of being injury-free in a tight schedule, how he will be keeping an eye out and cheering Clifford Miranda and his boys at the AFC U23 Asian Cup Qualifiers and his thoughts on AIFF’s Task Force to study the status of PIO footballers.
Question: The King’s Cup will be India’s first test on foreign soil this year. After such a solid performance at home, winning three tournaments, how eager are you and the boys to replicate that form in Thailand?
Igor Stimac: I am very eager, but I need to check how eager the boys are when I see them. They’ve spent the last few weeks with their clubs, with their club coaches, working on different things, and also enjoying the Durand Cup. And obviously, the King’s Cup will be a different challenge from the previous home tournaments, where we were very successful.
We’ve got the toughest possible opponents (Iraq) in the first game, and we’ll see how we can handle that with such a short time for preparation. I’ve been doing plenty of things. I’ve been following our opponents who we will face in the King’s Cup and also preparing an analysis on the Asian Games.
Q. The King’s Cup was your debut tournament with India in 2019, and we won the bronze. What are your memories from then?
Stimac: Cool memories. Yeah, it was a tough tournament. We faced the toughest team in the first round back then as well – Curacao, who had players with great stamina and technical skills, most of them playing in the Netherlands. Although we entered the game in a poor way, we responded in the second half with a few changes. Our youngsters played some fearless football, and we were very proud of them.
And then, we defeated Thailand with a totally different team where Sunil (Chhetri) was not involved. I left most of the boys from the first game on the bench, and we came out practically with the reserve team. Only a few guys from the defensive line were present there. Adil (Khan) played a magnificent game with Sandesh (Jhingan). It was really good to have our first win against Thailand in an away game.
Q. Sunil Chhetri is unlikely to be a part of the squad to Thailand this time. Obviously, he could be a big miss, but does that give you an opportunity to try out different things in attack?
Stimac: Absolutely. That’s why we are following our boys at the Durand Cup too. And they are doing well. They are showing a good attitude, putting on good performances. But you know that we have many things happening in September. So we’ll see who will get the opportunity and who will use it in a proper way, I would say.
Q. India’s first match is against one of Asia’s heavyweights Iraq. Will that give you a fair assessment of the kind of challenge India will be up against in the AFC Asian Cup?
Stimac: No, not really. I keep mentioning that the most important thing is for our national team to be resistant enough and have the level of intensity we need in the game to do well. History has proven in the four years since I took charge of the team that whenever we have short preparation time, we cannot show compactness at the needed level when we’re facing higher-ranked opponents.
But crucially, we have stabilised the most important part of our game which is the defence. So from that point of view, we can expect a stable defensive block. But I’m not sure how much energy we’re going to have for high-intensity football or high press, which we were doing magnificently in the previous three tournaments.
Q. The next few months are going to be very busy for India, with the King’s Cup and Asian Games in September, Merdeka in October, World Cup Qualifiers in November and the Asian Cup in January. What will be the key for India to pass all these tests?
Stimac: We need to be very wise and use the time, which will be given to us, properly. Because we know the time we get will not obviously be as we expected or enough for the ideal preparation. But whatever we get, we need to use it wisely and prepare ourselves in the best possible way for each challenge waiting for us ahead.
At the moment, we are probably not taking the best possible Indian team to the King’s Cup in Thailand. There will be many youngsters in the final list of 23 because immediately after that, we need to keep preparing ourselves for the Asian Games. And that’s our priority in September, not the results in the King’s Cup. Creating an environment and a team who will represent India in the Asian Games is our priority. That’s what we are focussed on for now.
Q. After the Asian Games draw, you said we will be fighting for the top spot against China. It’s a tournament, which follows a similar format to the Asian Cup, with a lot of top teams and the knockout stage starting from the round of 16. Going how far in the tournament will satisfy you?
Stimac: It’s difficult to say because it’s an under-23 competition, and you don’t have much information about all the teams you’re going to face there. I think we are the only team that hasn’t played a single game with the under-23s in the last two years. How much we can do in a short preparation time is a huge question. Obviously, we do have strong under-23 players, who are already a huge part of the senior national team, and it should help us. But as you say, it’s a similar competition to the Asian Cup, but different also because you don’t have time between the games for recovery.
We’re going to face the biggest opponents in our group, China, in the opening game. And less than 48 hours later we have to play the next opponents (Bangladesh), which is hugely surprising. We’re going to put all our efforts into the opening game and do our best to beat China to make our life easier.
Q. In between so many international tournaments this year, the players will also be playing for their clubs domestically. Game time and match practice will not be a problem, but do you think keeping fit and avoiding injuries will be of prime importance?
Stimac: Obviously, that’s the risk each club and national team in the world are taking these days. We can clearly see that there is less and less time for players to enjoy the rest they need. These things will need to change because there is too much pressure on the players. I know that there are many of those players waiting on the sidelines, knocking on the door of those who are already big stars, but this kind of environment doesn’t properly care about the health of the players or preventing injuries, which is a big problem in football at the moment.
So it’s the same with us. We need to manage these things, and what I was doing so far was rotating the players, which is the only way because pushing players to play game after game every three days is just not the way of doing it. We are taking too much risk.
Q. While the senior squad competes in Thailand, the U23s will be in China for the AFC U23 Asian Cup Qualifiers. Will you have one eye on what’s unfolding in China? What are your thoughts on Clifford Miranda leading the U23 boys?
Stimac: We did everything possible for Clifford to get most of the boys at the September events to stay with him and help him get good results for India. I hope he will find a way to manage things and challenge the problems ahead of him. I can clearly see there is good potential in the squad because most of the boys there are already enjoying ISL minutes and have certain experiences.
So they should be able to compete at this level, although we know they have a very tough group (UAE, China and Maldives). It’s not going to be easy. We all know that. But we need to be very supportive towards our boys and Clifford, who proved last season with Odisha that he’s a good head coach. We need to show our trust in him and back him up.
Q. Lastly, the AIFF recently announced the formation of a Task Force to study the status of PIO footballers. What are your thoughts on that?
Stimac: I’m very happy that we have started taking this issue very seriously and that the AIFF is showing seriousness about this topic. If we are looking to get great results for Indian football at the moment, it can happen with this action being successful and convincing the government to change laws and regulations, and allowing PIO players to represent India. I’m very happy that this process has started, and I just hope it won’t take years of studies and analysis because everything is very clear there.
PC – AIFF