India coach Igor Stimac recently said there may be lots of changes in the squad once the national team start preparing for their remaining three matches in the joint qualifiers for the World Cup and Asia Cup.
Typically, the Croatian legend said he hadn’t always had enough time in the camps to prepare the team physically, tactically and psychologically. Stimac is not the first national coach to say so; very few of his predecessors have been satisfied on this count when they left the baton for someone else to pick up.
Given what Stimac has in mind, will the preparations this time live up to his expectations when the doors of international football once again open up for the senior national team after a gap of 15 months? Landing as one of the least prepared sides in the group could be disastrous; while qualifying for the next round of the WC qualifiers is slim, bad results will seriously dent their AFC Asian Cup ambitions.
But before one gets into any such debate, it is best to look at the possible schedule that could find Sunil Chhetri and his men playing their three remaining group E qualifiers against Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan sometime between March 15 to June 15 in venues yet to be decided.
Sources in the All India Football Federation (AIFF) said the matches could be held in a centralized venue — though the final picture is yet to emerge.
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“Since the actual schedule has completely collapsed because of the pandemic, AFC (Asian Football Confederation) have said all the teams in each group are free to adjust their dates, of course mutually. Even if two teams find time to play each other on a non-FIFA date, it would not raise an objection,” an AIFF official said.
Qatar, Oman, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are the other teams in India’s group. Sources said both Qatar and Oman are eager to temporarily scrap the home and away system and transform the rest of the matches in group E into an “one-centre” meet, most probably in Muscat. India, who plan to start the national camp in Dubai from the first week of March, are not averse to the idea.
“Nothing has been finalized yet,” informed an AIFF official. “Bangladesh is not fully agreeing to this arrangement. They probably don’t want to lose the opportunity to host India in their own backyard, which is very much part of the original schedule. It may be a few more days before a final decision is taken on this,” he said.
Now that India would have to wait for the AFC decision, it is pertinent to consider how well-prepared the boys could be before they don the blue jersey once again after an infertile year with no action whatsoever.
The question is, will Stimac get all his boys together for a long enough period to chalk out his strategy for the three matches remaining? Going by the tentative schedule, the team could travel to Dubai in the first week of March. The Indian Super League (ISL) will be in its final stages then; the players of the four play-off teams will have to wait till their domestic engagements are over. It means, not every footballer picked for the camp by Stimac will be free to travel with the first batch.
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The problem doesn’t end here. The Asian Champions League(ACL) and AFC Cup kick off in April and May, and three ISL teams are in fray this time. Last season’s ISL league champions FC Goa are in group E; their matches have been scheduled between April 14 to 30.
In the AFC Cup, Indian representation has been increased to two – ATK Mohun Bagan will play the main rounds; not because of ATK, but on the strength of Mohun Bagan AC’s title triumph in the I-League last year. Bengaluru FC have been given a slot in the preliminary rounds. The BFC match is on April 14, against the winners of the Tribhuvan Army Club, Nepal and Sri Lanka Police. ATK Mohun Bagan’s matches are much later, between May 14 and 20. The venues for the matches are yet to be decided by AFC.
Given the schedule, the national team’s camp in Dubai from the first week of March should face no problem. But at the same time, all three ISL clubs trying to make a mark in the Asian meet, could also have their own preparatory camps. It could be interesting to see how things shape up if they refuse to release footballers beyond the FIFA stipulated time period of 72 hours before the match. The AIFF bosses in the past have often said they had huge respect for this particular rule.
The federation, it can be assumed, will find a solution to the problem to satisfy the national coach — to an extent at least. But it also raises questions. Why couldn’t the Indian team play a single friendly throughout 2020, especially in the last few months when their rivals were engaged in regular international outings.
Bangladesh for example have played at least half a dozen matches in the last year, including the World Cup qualifier against Qatar. Their reluctance to play at a centralised venue is obvious. Playing India at home is a commercially and competitively lucrative opportunity.
Apart from this, Bangladesh played two friendly outings against Nepal and a couple of matches against club sides in Qatar — all matches in November and December when a world held hostage by Covid-19 was opening up slowly. Bangladesh were no less troubled by the pandemic, but they did a commendable job in giving their national side some valuable match time. They cannot be blamed for waiting to challenge India on their home turf.
Two other teams in India’s group, Qatar and Oman have also gone the similar way. In November, Qatar played two friendly matches against Costa Rica and South Korea before routing Bangladesh 5-0 in December.
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The match against South Korea in Seoul was played under highly difficult conditions. It was held following a Covid-19 outbreak within the South Korean team. Six Korean players tested positive for the virus over the weekend, leaving Paulo Bento’s team with only 19 players. According to FIFA regulations, a match may still be played during the pandemic as long as a team has 13 healthy players, including a goalkeeper. South Korea went on to win 2-1.
Oman did not play any international match in November-December, but they used the time by holding camp for the national team and the under-23 Olympic side. Matches were played between the two teams and now the Oman national team is scheduled to play a friendly against Jordan on March 19 before they renew their World Cup qualifiers battle in India’s group.
India, of course, didn’t find it important to build up the national side in November-December. In fact, they couldn’t, since by that time the domestic season was in full swing. One hopes the rigours of the ISL prove enough for Indian boys to counter their much better prepared rivals.
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