New Delhi, Sep 17 : In his first press conference in New Delhi after being announced as the head coach of the Indian men's football team, Croatian Igor Stimac said that apart from seeing better tactical awareness from his players, he wants to see "tigers and lions out there." Stimac's appointment was one that, in normal parlance, should have come with big expectations. Being a former World Cup star and defensive stalwart for his country as a player and a fairly successful former coach of Croatia, the 52-year-old is arguably one of the most high profile names to have ever taken charge of the Indian team. And yet, the realities of the game in India and of the team he will be coaching are such that the dreams were tempered.
If any high hopes existed, they would have been comfortably killed off by the hammering India received at the hands of the likes of North Korea and Tajikistan in the days since his appointment. However, those who went into these matches without hoping for the moon would have seen some encouraging trends emerge.
They would have seen the marked increase in the number of passes along the ground the players were making -- or attempting to make -- as opposed to booting the ball upfield in hope and despair in the early exchanges of the game itself.
They would have appreciated the account India gave of themselves against CONCACAF Gold Cup semi-finalists Curacao, many of whose players are regulars in European leagues. They would have noted India's performance in their 1-1 draw against Syria, who missed on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup by a whisker.
Get past the crushing disappointment of India folding in the dying minutes of their first 2022 World Cup qualifier against Oman, and you would see Stimac's men making a team placed 16 spots above them on the FIFA rankings defend for their lives for much of the first half.
On September 10, it was difficult for even the most disillusioned Indian fan to be critical of the team. India have rarely ever existed in the same sentence as Brazil, Argentina and Colombia in a footballing context and yet there they were, as one of only four teams to have stopped free-scoring Asian champions Qatar from scoring.
The enormity of this result is magnified by the fact that this was a team without a number of players who started against Oman, talismanic skipper Sunil Chhetri being the most notable absentee.
It was as backs-to-the-wall a performance as they come for the Indian team but them sitting deep and maintaining shape pushed Qatar out wide and into trying ambitious shots from outside the box. Anything that went past the defence was parried away or caught by the indomitable Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Over the past two years, whenever faced with a high profile opponent, India have decided to go the pragmatic way and their defensive prowess made them a difficult side to beat under Stimac's predecessor Stephen Constantine. Under Stimac, they have tried to shed some of that pragmatism but that often led to them conceding a number of goals in a single match. Under both managers, India showed a tendency to run out of steam in the last 20 minutes of a match.
Against Qatar, however, India fought against that tendency and held fort for the duration of the game. It was the biggest takeaway from the match for Stimac.
"Against Qatar, we proved to everyone who were talking about a lack of fitness among the players. Qatar are in a different league as compared to any team in Asia and my boys made sprints till the very last minute. They defended with such concentration throughout, which really proves their fitness capacity," he said.
India next host Bangladesh at the enormous Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata on October 15 after which they play Afghanistan away from home. The point against Qatar has done a world of good for their confidence and matches against lower ranked opponents couldn't have come at a better time.
The Indian team seems to be working in a world of its own, seemingly unaffected by the chaos and uncertainty surrounding the national league structure. Stimac gave half a dozen players debuts in his first game in charge, among whom were the likes of Sahal Abdul Samad, Brandon Fernandes, Rahul Bheke and Amarjit Singh who have gone on to become regulars in the team. Add to that the lot of players under the age of 25 such as Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan who made their debuts under Constantine and it looks like the Indian team have a group of players they can rely upon for many years.
But before the giddy optimism sets in, it is important to remember the aforementioned chaos in the Indian football league structure. Aside from getting his players to understand the way he wants them to play, Stimac's other big challenge could be to shield them from whatever it is that happens to the clubs they play for.
Rather than seeing it as a sign of things to come, India's win against Qatar should be seen as a very important milestone in a long, arduous process. As stated before, temper your expectations, and Indian football might just surprise you.
(Rohit Mundayur can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)