With a little under a week to go before India’s first match in the World Cup 2022 qualifiers against Asian champions Qatar, Indian national football team head coach Igor Stimac highlighted the importance of making up for lost time and exuded confidence of making it to the AFC Asian Cup.
“Our initial plan was to start the camp from mid-April. When that was not possible, we tried to start on May 2 in Kolkata. We also had plans to play a few friendlies. But then the pandemic struck, and everything was cancelled – due to nobody’s fault of course,” said Stimac.
“We have been able to arrange a few days of the camp finally in Doha. It’s not ideal, but it is what it is, and we must get on with making up for the lost time.”
With Asian champions Qatar leading Group E, followed by Oman, securing a top spot may be out of reach, but the Blue Tigers’ Asian dream is very much alive, as they aim to secure a third-placed finish.
“I am very confident that at the end of the journey, we will be in the AFC Asian Cup. Never mind the group position right now, because the actual situation is far from the present,” informed Stimac. “Qatar is a fully prepared team, Bangladesh finished their season on May 10, and 23 out of the 28 Afghan players are playing in Europe or USA with their season in full swing.”
“Our team’s situation is different, but I can promise you that we will give it everything. The boys will give each atom of energy in their bodies to answer all doubts on the pitch. We will do everything to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup. Only then, will our proper work start,” he continued.
“We are aware that Qatar is the future host, and they have great facilities for their teams. Perhaps we may have expected more in terms of that, but we appreciate the efforts by Qatar to organise (these matches),” he stated.
Currently standing fourth in Group E of the Qualifiers, behind Asian champions Qatar, Oman and Afghanistan with three points to their name, India are set to play their last three Qualifying matches in Doha, Qatar (due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic) against the hosts Qatar (June 3), Bangladesh (June 7), and Afghanistan (June 15).
While the pandemic has been taking a toll on everyone around the world, Stimac believes that his players are motivated enough as they know the situation that everyone is currently facing.
“Motivating them is not a problem. They are all good professionals and I do not have any problem in keeping them motivated,” said Stimac. They are well aware of the situation and are working hard with full commitment on the training pitch with a few days left for the Qualifiers,” he averred. “They know that they are representing their country, and they will do everything possible to defend the India colours.”
As the times and situations all around have gotten difficult due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Blue Tigers view their glass as half full.
“People are suffering everywhere due to the pandemic, and the boys see this as an opportunity to make everyone in India happy with their performances. We need to take this chance with both hands and bring smiles to all the faces,” Stimac observed.
Stimac went on to explain that his goal has not changed since he took over as the head coach of the Blue Tigers, back in 2019.
“Never mind the situation – our goals have not changed. We will use the initial two years to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup. If there was a chance, we would have taken a shot at World Cup qualification too. We have had some setbacks in the form of injuries to key players too – Sandesh (Jhingan), (Rowllin) Borges and Brandon (Fernandes). We have suffered a lot, but we are still alive with our goals. I am convinced that we will qualify for the AFC Asian Cup, and then we can convince India about the quality of our game,” he continued.
Unlike the last match against Qatar 18 months back, or the two friendlies against Oman and UAE earlier this year, Stimac has the services of iconic striker Sunil Chhetri at his disposal. “Having Sunil back is great for each one of us. As I speak, we need to be clever with Sunil every day. We have three games coming up in 12 guys, and we need to decide on how to use him. The Afghanistan and Bangladesh games are more important (in terms of India’s position in the group),” he said. “We will have a clearer picture of the condition of the player in a few days.”
Along with captain Chhetri, his teammate from Bengaluru FC Udanta Singh is also back in the team, and the coach intends to use the attacker’s experience in the big games ahead.
“Udanta paid the price in the ISL because he was not in the best of form. There was also a change in position after the change in coach at his club. But he has shown that he is more than a decent forward – he’s got strength, he’s got speed, and he’s got character. He has proved that he can destroy the best fullbacks in Asia, on his day,” said the Blue Tigers boss.
Igor Stimac had handed debuts to more than 10 players in the two International Friendlies earlier this year, paving the way for a number of new faces in the squad for the Qualifiers in Qatar. However, the coach explained that it was more a case of testing out the good performers in the Hero ISL.
“Most of the youngsters are here to get a feel of the atmosphere of international competitive games. It might happen that they may get a chance, but they are here primarily to learn what is required of them on the pitch and off it,” said Stimac.