The Indian football team led by new coach Igor Stimac has left for Thailand to participate in the King's Cup. Stimac has earned praise from the players due to his "professional attitude and different approach", but it remains to be seen whether the Croat can lead the team to the title.
The 51-year-old, who represented Croatia in the 1998 World Cup, had submitted a blueprint to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) on how he plans to take India to the next level.
On May 21 he started a national camp in New Delhi with 37 players so as to prepare for his first assignment. He has since chosen a squad of 23 players, excluding Nishu Kumar who had played at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. The squad also includes six players who are yet to play an international match.
India have previously played in the King's Cup in 1977, finishing third. Going by the rankings of the teams involved in the tournament this time, India's chances look good. Out of the three other teams taking part, only Vietnam have a higher FIFA ranking than India.
This year, defending champions Slovakia are not taking part in the King's Cup. The teams apart from India and Vietnam would be hosts Thailand and Curacao from the Carribean islands. India are ranked 101 in the world while Thailand are ranked 114th. Curacao, whom India will face on June 5, are placed 134th in the rankings, while Vietnam are ranked 98th.
Hence, India would have high hopes when they play their first match. Against Thailand, which will face Vietnam on the same day, India had recorded a big 4-1 victory when the two sides met at the Asian Cup. Captain Sunil Chhetri had put in a stellar shift in that match, scoring a brace.
Before the team left for Thailand, Chhetri had praised Stimac's approach to the game. "He is somebody who believes in total football. He wants our defence to be strong and whenever we get a chance we have to be brave enough to attack," he said.
Apart from Chhetri, Stimac has chosen Balwant Singh, Farookh Chaudhary and Manveer Singh in the forward line. The likes of Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Pronay Halder, Vinit Rai and Lallianzuala Chhangte are in the midfield and the experience they have of playing in India colours will come in handy.
Halder admitted that he has "improved significantly as a player under Stimac."
"He has been guiding me on and off the ball, explaining my positioning as per match situations. He is a great motivator, and is himself highly motivated. He says that we can bridge the gap with higher ranked nations, but for that we need to work hard," Halder said.
Among the midfielders is also 22-year-old Sahal Abdul Samad for whom Chhetri reserved special praise. "Samad is one person I'd like to see do well. If he understands the kind of potential he has and keeps his head on his shoulders, he can do really well," he said.
Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and experienced centre back Sandesh Jhingan are also happy with Stimac.
"Stimac is a hardcore professional. It's very important for a coach to be honest, and he is very straightforward. Most significantly, he provides all the proper reasoning of what he is trying to do, the purpose behind everything which is being done," Sandhu said.
Jhingan, arguably the most important name in the Indian defensive setup, noted that Stimac's history as one of the best centre backs Croatia has produced is helpful for him.
"He was a central defender who played in the 1998 World Cup in France where Croatia finished third. He has also played league football at the highest level, and has also been a youth world champion. I have spoken to him about the areas I want to improve on, and he has stressed on certain factors. It's always so encouraging to have the right connection," he said.
The Indian team will reach Bangkok on Sunday from where they will set off for Buriram, which is three-and-a-half hours from the Thailand capital.
It will be interesting to see how effective Stimac's new ideas, new system and new approach will be. But what is for sure is that the new Indian team will be up against a proper test in Thailand.
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