The Indian football team won its eighth SAFF Championship title in Male last weekend. The players, under coach Igor Stimac, had a wobbly start to the campaign before getting their act together in must-win matches to lift a trophy which India should have done without breaking a sweat. No wonder Stimac, in a press briefing after returning, said it was not a “special success”. India should aim for bigger things, the coach rightfully said, and with better preparation, he added.
Preparation…. Well, now that’s a tricky point the coach has threaded on. Finally, The side which travelled to Male for SAFF had no preparatory camp. The main reason was the preseason commitments. The Indian Super League (ISL) sides are preparing their squads for the upcoming season, and, in Indian football, the result of a club vs country tussle usually goes one way.
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India’s Croatian coach clearly understands that. No wonder, he has hinted (yes, the words were rounded off rather diplomatically), that the stakeholders should devise means to release his players for a camp ahead of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers which is likely to be staged in February next year, right in the middle of the ISL season.
Stimac has reasons to preempt this discussion. He, after all, suffered with an unprepared squad in Male. Also, he was talking about this from Bengaluru hours before leaving for Dubai with the Under-23 national team for the 2022 Asian U23 Championships qualifiers in the UAE from October 25 to 31. That squad, needless to say, have had no time to train together either.
"We don't know yet who we are going to play, we don't know our group yet. But we need to prepare ourselves because we have been told our first game will be on February 1,” said Stimac about the senior side’s important campaign.
“If we are going to succeed in this qualifiers, which are games to play outside FIFA window, we need to sit down with other stakeholders in domestic competitions (read ISL), how much time the national team players will get for preparation," he added.
The ISL has only issued the fixtures of the first leg of the league (November 19 to January 9). The coach is clear that the side would need good preparation time to produce good results in the Asian qualification matches.
"Otherwise, we are going to gamble, as simple as that," he said.
"Because the players will begin the ISL season now and we need to make sure as soon as possible that this February opening of the third round of qualifications (for Asian Cup) is part of the ISL calendar so that the players are released for national team duty," added Stimac.
It was also heartening to hear Stimac smother the euphoria around the SAFF victory.
"I don't consider it (the SAFF title) as a special success because it is normal that India wins when it goes to SAFF but it demonstrates that we are very dominant in this competition and we can progress in our game a lot more," Stimac said.
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His team, however, was hardly dominant. They were under a lot of "result pressure" after drawing Bangladesh (1-1) and Sri Lanka (0-0) in the first two round-robin league matches. The results put India in danger of not making it to the final of the five-team competition. India rallied, however, powered by an in-form Sunil Chhetri, to beat Nepal 1-0 and hosts Maldives 3-1 in must-win matches before outplaying Nepal 3-0 in the summit clash.
"It was obviously a difficult situation we found after the first two matches but they looked bad only because of the results. There was no big difference in approach, the numbers and statistics, we had enough shots, scoring chances, movement and energy by players,” Stimac said.
"We scored sometimes and didn't score sometimes and that made the difference. So, we had a lot of pressure on our shoulders but we dealt with it the way it should be and in the end we won the trophy which was really important," he added.
Chhetri scored five out of India's eight goals in the competition to emerge as the highest scorer. Stimac was all praise for his most senior asset.
"His influence is keeping the team going. He is a role model and leader off and on the field. He is the most passionate player in the dressing room and his fitness level is unbelievable. He is in the best shape possible and that is why he played in all the matches (of SAFF Championships). When somebody who can score better and who has better fitness (comes along), only then he can be replaced, otherwise you cannot replace him and he keeps on playing till the time he is with the team," said the coach.
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