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We need players with confidence in front of goal: Stimac after India’s Asian Cup exit

India’s head coach Igor Stimac stands for their national anthem before the start of the Asian Cup Group B football match between Syria and India at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.
| Photo Credit: AP

India ended their Asian Cup campaign pointless and goal-less, and head coach Igor Stimac admitted that his team needs players with confidence in front of opposition goal, a significant statement considering the likely retirement of talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri in the next few years.

It’s no secret that the Indian team lacks a quality striker, apart from the 39-year-old Chhetri, though Stimac understandably would often play down such concerns in the past.

But, he chose to be candid after India lost 0-1 to Syria on Jan 23 to crash out of the Asian Cup with an all-loss record.

Finding a new striker

“Scoring goals comes with having good goal scorers in the team, people with confidence in front of goal,” Stimac said at the post-match conference.

“The team produced enough chances to score enough goals. You all know why we are not scoring goals at international level. It will happen when we start having Indian players in centre forward positions (at club level). Only then we’re going to have many more goal scorers for national team.

“So, kindly raise that question somewhere else, not here,” he said, clearly referring to the lack of Indians in centre forward positions in the Indian Super League clubs.

India lost all their three group matches and conceded six goals in the tournament, the worst in all the five editions the country had participated. They lost 0-2 to Australia and 0-3 to Uzbekistan before the solitary goal defeat to Syria.

“It’s a good learning experience for us. Overall, in three games, we proved we can compete at this level. Obviously, everybody sees the missing points when India plays. (Regarding) the problems in Indian football, as much as you give that much you get at the end. That is my conclusion of this tournament,” said Stimac, who had demanded a four-week pre-tournament training camp but got just 10 days.

This was the first time India returned without scoring a goal, with Chhetri, the lone ranger for a long time, also having an ordinary outing considering his high standards.

The world’s third most prolific player among active footballers is in the twilight of his career and certainly has played his last Asian Cup. He had scored two goals each in the 2011 and 2019 editions of the Asian Cup, where India also failed to qualify for the knock-out rounds.

No magic wand, says Stimac

Stimac said he does not possess a magic wand to take Indian football forward in a short span of time.

“India never qualified for U-23 AFC Asian Cup. Then how will we have good senior players? How can we expect good results at senior level if we don’t qualify for U-18, U-20 and U-23 Asian Cup?”, he asked. “I’m not a magician, I don’t have a magic wand. I’m just a hardworking guy who is asking you to be patient, as good things in football don’t happen overnight.

“I promise to take you to the third round of World Cup Qualifiers in the next 12 months. After that things need to speed up with investments, with foreign coaches coming in to take charge of Indian football academies.”

Talking about his game plan in the Syria match, he said, “We had a clear plan to take the game into 60 minutes with a clean sheet and to bring on the fresh legs, which I was hoping would give us something and get an impact to this team in the last 30 minutes, which obviously didn’t happen.”

“I think Udanta (Singh) was the only one who came as a substitute and did a few things, others did not have any impact whatsoever,” rued the experienced coach, who is also a World Cup bronze winner for Croatia.

Defensive mainstay Sandesh Jhingan was taken off the field in the first minute of the second half due to an injury. Till then the match was scoreless. But, Stimac did not feel that Jhingan’s absence had a big impact on the result, saying other defenders such as Rahul Bheke and Subhasish Bose did quite well.

He warned that players who are “casual” in their approach would not get their places in the team.

Stimac, who received a yellow card during the Syria match, said the referee was too harsh on India. “You cannot sanction each contact made by India and not sanction the other side. Just keep the same level of criteria throughout the 100 minutes.”

“Here we saw today, hitting a player off the ball, it’s a red card. That kind of behaviour (by a Syrian player) is a red card.”

Stimac also made an interesting comment that the Syrian goal-scorer Omar Khrbin, the 2017 AFC Asian Footballer of the Year and currently playing in UAE Pro League, was worth two times the combined market value of all the 11 Indian players who started the match (4.5 million Euros vs 2.5 million Euros).

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