“Which team and what morale?”
Nothing summed up the mood of Indian national team football head coach Igor Stimac better when asked to describe his feelings on the hastily-put together squad handed to him and its spirit, ahead of the Asian Games where a group of Indian U23 players are set to face the Chinese U23 team, less than a day after landing at the venue. An unbalanced team – one that is missing key fullbacks and midfielders and will likely see no participation from Sunil Chhetri and Sandesh Jhingan in the first match, underline how dire the circumstances surrounding this team and its preparation have been.
“From a point of asking for a training camp it has come to a point where we need to be happy with just getting the players before kick-off. It’s a disservice to the national team. The things I was asking for, I wasn’t asking for myself,” Stimac said during a media interaction.
The commencement of the Indian Super League season, along with AFC club competitions taking place, has meant that Stimac has had to make do without the set of players that he had asked for – most of whom didn’t get released by their clubs. No FIFA international window meant that clubs weren’t obligated to do so in the first place. What could have been another tournament and another chance for Indian national team players to gel further was squandered as the All-India Football Federation was unable to convince clubs to release certain players.
Asian Games a golden opportunity for youngsters, says @stimac_igor 💯🇮🇳
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) September 17, 2023
This move of the clubs was not lost on Stimac. The Croatian, known for his fiery outburst and passionate demands, once again took aim at the ISL and said, “If I knew that certain elements will stop us from going with the best possible team, I would have rather picked all the players from the I-League and request to train with them for two months and prepare with them for the Asian Games.”
The Indian team is set to reach Hangzhou at five in the evening (Monday) and rather than train after the journey – one which has seen players arrive from their clubs and then fly to Hong Kong before heading to their destination on China’s south-eastern side – they will prioritise rest and then face their opponents.
“We will give tactical preparation at the airport. We will not have a training session before the game. We need to let players rest after we reach.”
Another crucial aspect that’s unclear is just how fit these players are. After flying from their clubs to Hangzhou, it’s only in China where an accurate assessment of injuries, niggles or knocks will truly come out. Usually, the first few days of a camp before a tournament is reserved for medical tests but since this has been a unique buildup to the Asian Games football programme for India, winging it seems to be the only option on the table.
“There is no reason to look back now. It’s time to focus on what can be done within our power to open the tournament with a good fight. We cannot expect more. More importantly, I will need to approach this very carefully and discuss with the players about their physical conditions,” Stimac said.
India is in a group along with China, Bangladesh and Myanmar. On paper, while China seems like a foregone conclusion, defeating Bangladesh and Myanmar should be a possibility. The top two teams from each of the six groups reach the pre-quarters, along with four of the best third-placed teams – an easy enough opportunity for India to at least make the pre-quarters.
“China will be a tough side, and they prefer a 4-4-2 system, which might change to a 3-4-3 occasionally. They have three senior players that are very important to their side, a striker who is as tall as a tower, and scored 26 goals in their Super League, and an experienced attacking midfielder,” Stimac said, “So we will need to be clever and preserve our energy for the next two games, and then we might make it to the knockout rounds.”
“We will look at the tournament as a hope and yes there is a possibility to qualify from the group but to do that some luck needs to be there on our side. The boys need to produce the best performance of their lives,” he added.