Back in the 1970s, Shyam Thapa was considered the poster boy of Indian football. Handsome and skillful, the glamorous striker was famous for scoring stunning goals, especially through bicycle kicks. So much was his demand among top clubs that he got himself released from the prestigious National Defence Academy to turn pro.
Currently, the chairman of All India Football Federation’s (AIFF’s) technical committee, Shyam Thapa, pushing 73, was down with high fever at his Kolkata residence when India received a 0-6 thrashing at the hands of UAE. He wasn’t even aware of the result when this correspondent called him to check his reactions.
“What happened in the match…,” he asked eagerly. Once the scoreline was repeated, there was complete silence from his side for around 10 seconds. “May be the defensive organization….” he murmured. The technical committee chairman clearly lost interest to take the conversation ahead. The soft-spoken 1970 Asian Games bronze medallist excused himself rather quickly.
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Thapa is not the only one to maintain silence ever since the Zabeel Stadium massacre. Indian football and its custodians are often berated of having more presence on social media platforms than on the pitch. The trend has reversed -- the otherwise smooth-talking and genial coach Igor Stimac has preferred to return to his home country without bothering to explain what exactly went wrong that forced India to suffer their worst defeat in 10 years. The regular social media messages from the game’s bosses pointing at the upward mobility of Indian football have dried up too.
Well, what happened against UAE the other day is not something unprecedented in Indian football and Stimac is not the first national coach to return with the tail between his legs. More famous coaches and far more legendary footballers in India have suffered similar fate before at the international arena. At the same time, such setbacks often made them stronger.
Having already decided to hold a month-long preparatory camp in Kolkata from the middle of April for the rest of the three World Cup qualifiers, Stimac and his boys could be thinking along the same lines. Yet, it is mildly surprising that Stimac’s employers have not asked him some basic questions -- at least not officially. Only the technical committee could raise a few queries and since no meeting of the committee has been called, it may safely be assumed it is still to find the situation alarming enough.
It is now nearly two years since the famed Croatian coach has taken over the mantle of the national team. With almost a year lost in between for the pandemic, only a dozen matches could be played under his stewardship. Of the 12, only one of them could India win -- that was on June 8, 2019 against hosts Thailand in the King’s Cup. Thereafter, India haven’t won a match in 10 attempts. The last outing was the worst -- half a dozen goals against UAE is not going to enhance the reputation of the game in India. It is a defeat that is going to hurt India for many years to come.
To say, it was a friendly tie where the coach was having a good look at his latest recruits wouldn’t help beyond a certain extent -- the boys, after all, were there on the pitch wearing blue jerseys.
Stimac has made one thing clear from the very onset. He doesn’t believe in past reputation and is not afraid to try out upcoming talents. A brilliant idea, but he, perhaps, has taken it too far. Right from his Day One in the Thailand King’s Cup in June 2019, Stimac’s relentless experiments have unsettled things in a few matches. Never in the past two years has he fielded the same starting XI that did duty in the previous match. His chopping and changing has been constant, giving rise to suspicion he is still undecided about his 14 footballers to do duty on crucial days.
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True, under Stimac’s reign, around 20 fresh footballers, all young and raring to go, have found their way into the national team. But the handsomely-paid coach’s primary duty is to take things ahead in the World Cup qualifiers and ensure a place in the 2023 Asian Cup. Failing which neither the coach, nor his much-hyped debutants will have much to talk about or justify. Too many experiments can cost the team dear.
Again, Stimac has to be given his due. Someone had to stick his neck out and the coach had the courage to do it knowing it could backfire at any stage. But how long can he turn the national team into a freshers’ party? With the final three World Cup qualifying matches round the corner, he continued his bid to find the right combination -- he looked successful against Oman, but disaster struck against UAE. The result can have an extremely negative effect; it can dent the morale of the team on the eve of qualifiers.
Former national coach Sukhwinder Singh said: “I watched the match against UAE. More than the six goals, I was hurt by India’s apparent lack of defensive organization. The gaps were too many. The boys had just played the ISL and had a 10-day camp. I wonder why they completely failed to maintain the much-needed shape in the second half.”
It is too technical a question that can only be explained by the coach and his staff. Fans on the other hand will continue to wonder about the fact that at least 14 defenders have been used for the national team in the last two years and yet it resulted in a humiliating defeat against a team, who found India a real tough nut to crack only 26 months ago on their home turf in the Asian Cup.
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True, if defenders like Jerry Lalrinzuala, Narender Gehlot, Subhasis Bose or Nishu Kumar have faded into oblivion, then things like their current form, approach and physical fitness could be the reasons. But what about their replacements?
Stimac himself had the answer to it. “Our players will need to understand that this is not the ISL where there is a lot of space and time to control the ball in the middle. If you behave the way you do in ISL in international matches, you will be badly hurt,” Stimac was quoted saying. What Stimac didn’t say was with the support of well-skilled foreign footballers, the confidence level does get the necessary boost. It doesn’t reflect the same way when one is left on his own at the international arena.
The defeat against UAE is not the end of the world for Indian football. Certainly not. But Stimac and his men will have to prove that point. And prove emphatically. What happened in the past is a kind of “whataboutery” that the nation, sadly though, is obsessed with these days.
At the 1952 Olympics, India lost to Yugoslavia 10-1, their worst defeat since Independence. Four years later, India finished fourth in the Olympics under the same coach. In the 1971 Merdeka tournament, Burma (now Myanmar) hammered India 9-1. The same squad, in less than two weeks, went on to emerge joint winners in the Pesta Sukan Cup, which included a 6-0 victory over Malaysia.
Here the progress of Stimac’s men in World Cup qualifiers would be keenly watched. The Croatian coach said the young boys would be ready to play against the best in four years. All these will render meaningless if India falter in its Asian Cup journey.
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