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Indian Football Team’s Takeaway from Nepal Friendlies: Some More Fuel for ‘Coach Out’ Campaign

Igor Stimac was given an extension not for bringing the SAFF Cup home, but to see the Indian football team qualify for the AFC Asian Cup. It looks a difficult task, especially if the team continues to play the way it did against Nepal in the two friendlies.
Farukh Choudhary of Indian football team scores against Nepal

Farukh Choudhary scores to put the Indian football team ahead in the friendly against Nepal at the Dasharath Stadium in Kathmandu on Sunday (Pic: AIFF).

Farukh Choudhary and Sunil Chhetri struck in the second half to lead India to a narrow 2-1 win over Nepal in the second of the two-match series at Kathmandu’s Dasharath Stadium on Sunday, September 5. The first match at the same venue ended in a 1-1 draw three days earlier.

Football results tend to simplify things. India’s performance in Nepal, for instance, is not as simple as a win and a draw. As per the statistics available, it was substitute forward Farukh’s maiden international goal and skipper Chhetri’s 75th, yet another improvement to his own record as India’s highest ever goal getter.

In reality, the two goals carry much more meaning than they appear to be in naked eyes. The two goals paved the way for Igor Stimac’s third victory in his 28-month stint as the India coach. The second half goals also saved India from opening up yet another can of excuses for not living up to the expectations in the tour of Nepal. The unopened canister can now be kept in the cold for future rainy days.

To find excuses, and managing headlines, had been Indian football’s modus operandi in the last few years. It didn’t matter whether it was about defeat against Guam, or draw against Afghanistan or complaints on the arrangements in Qatar. But the one that was conceived after the 1-1 struggle against Nepal in the first match surpassed all imagination.

Ranked 63 spots higher than the hosts on the FIFA table, India definitely looked a troubled lot in the first match. Their defence was shaky with a non-existing midfield doing very little to help out an equally wobbly forwardline. 

Officially, Stimac said: “Nepal relied on tight defensive blocks and counter-attacks. India are the better side – we all agree, and we can play better quality football. 

“Nepal relied on a bad pitch, tight defensive blocks, and counter-attacks. When they came to the final third, they put in dangerous crosses inside the box. The coach has put in a stable composure in the team, they have good discipline, and are showing their quality in many parts of the game,” added the Croatian. 

Fair enough, though the poor showing did not help put a stop to an anti-Stimac campaign launched by a section of the Indian fans, who took to social media to vent their anger. They had every right to feel let down by India’s downright poor show, but impatient remarks didn’t help the cause.

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A fresh angle emerged a day later. The Indian coach, a World Cupper, didn’t alter his views, but “team sources” revealed to a news agency that the coach had been extremely upset at not being able to get a decent pitch to practice. It was learnt that because of rain and poor ground conditions, the Indians couldn’t train the way they wanted and it was a major roadblock to their improvement. It was also learnt that the ground conditions in Nepal were so pathetic that players had to pick up pieces of pebbles from the pitch before they could start training.

Definitely a matter of concern – followers of Indian football would truly feel sympathetic towards the coach and his bunch of talented boys. But did it come as a shock for the Indian team? If it did, then this would certainly be a matter of shock, not the state of the pitch at Kathmandu’s only international football stadium. 

Nepal is not exactly millions of miles away from India – anyone with some amount of knowledge of how football is run in the sub-continent is well aware of the general ground conditions in this part of the world. 

Well, to put it straight, it is a matter of pity that one has to resort to such tactics to defend a bad day for the team. When facilities were criticized in Qatar, the coach had to make a hasty retreat the next day; the reasons were predictable. This time, Nepal did a good turn to India by offering them to host matches in the midst of a pandemic. It wasn’t exactly the finest way to pay back the gesture. 

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A former India footballer watched the first of the two India-Nepal outings and decided not to sit through the second. “I feel ashamed to say there was a time when I wore this very jersey with a reasonable amount of success. Do these boys really have a coach? Then why are they so erratic and play with such lack of purpose,” he asked.

He could have watched the second and felt a little more assured. The combination definitely looked better though the defence was appalling on many occasions. Stimac’s choice of Rahul Bheke in defence in the opener didn’t work for the umpteenth number time, raising questions as to why he was not looking for a permanent solution.

In the first match, some felt the coach could have done better by bringing in Anirudh Thapa in the midfield earlier than the 46th minute. It didn’t look like a bad idea, especially after Thapa did a decent job in the second encounter. He also scored India’s only goal in the first. 

In the end, it didn’t really matter if India drew one of their two matches against Nepal. The idea was not to rout the opponents, but to get some decent match time and have a look at as many players as possible. India’s main battle lies ahead in the Asian Cup qualifiers – they need to reach the next level badly. Otherwise, their cash-rich domestic structure would crumble soon, no matter how much more money they pump into this vulnerable system.  

Shortly, Chhetri and his boys will travel to Maldives for the SAFF Cup (October 1 to 16), which will be played with only five teams. Afghanistan have already moved away from the SAFF, Pakistan are currently serving a suspension and Bhutan have decided not to participate because of Covid-19, leaving India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the hosts to fight it out for the title.  

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No matter how India played in recent Nepal friendlies, they are still the favourites to win the SAFF Cup, which they have lifted seven times previously. Many years ago, former midfielder Tushar Rakshit, a few hours after winning the SAFF Cup in Kathmandu, said: “Winning the Federation Cup is far more difficult than this campaign.” There is no reason to believe the standard of the SAFF Cup has improved over the years.

But is that going to be enough? It could be for the satisfaction of a section of the officials, who will put a temporary halt to churning out lame excuses. Stimac has been given an extension not for bringing the SAFF Cup home, but to see India qualify for the Asian Cup. It looks a difficult task – perhaps Stimac too knows it more than anyone else. 

If Stimac’s bosses want the “coach out” campaign to be nipped in the bud, there is an altogether different reason for it. Such demands always carry the danger of getting bigger and can call for many more heads to roll. No such idea should be encouraged at any cost!

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