Asian Cup Qualifiers: The Indian soccer team tries to break the shackles against lower-tier opponents

Long queues outside Salt Lake Stadium for tickets are a testament to Kolkata’s love of football. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) underestimated it, initially only issuing 12,000 free tickets assuming no more than 10,000 fans would turn up to watch India’s matches in Group D Asian Cup qualifiers. They had to make the course correction after Sunil Chhetri’s comment that home field advantage would be lost if the stands remained empty. More than 50,000 fans are expected as India begins its campaign against Cambodia on Wednesday.

Strong home support guarantees an electrifying atmosphere. But it doesn’t guarantee success on the pitch. India, under their head coach Igor Stimac, have recently adopted a reactive, ultra-defensive style, particularly after their 1-1 World Cup qualifier draw against Bangladesh in October 2019. Used until the Asian Cup qualifiers Stimac a block that was so low that the defenders almost sat on their goalkeeper’s neck. Jordan won the game 2-0. The head coach’s low block has accomplished nothing so far, other than keeping the goal lines respectable.

Asian Cup qualifiers offer an opportunity to break the shackles against lower-ranked opponents. Cambodia’s Fifa rankings are 171 versus India’s 106. Hong Kong and Afghanistan are 147 and 150 respectively. Fans are demanding proactive football and Stimac is ready to deliver.

“I’d say we’ve prepared for anything, but we want to push from the first minute and put Cambodia under pressure. We have to prove we’re the favorites and we have to control their counterattacks and be ready to deal with them,” he said at the pre-match press conference.

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AIFF Technical Committee Chairman Shyam Thapa urged the team to play “open” football. “Drawing doesn’t bring you anything. India must play open football. I’ve seen these players play expressive football while showing up for their respective clubs in the ISL. I don’t know why they are becoming reticent on duty in India,” Thapa, a former Indian centre-forward, told The Indian Express.

The squad announced by national team coach Igor Stimac was assembled from an extensive training camp in Kolkata. (AIFF)

His ISL comparison offers relevance, but there’s a catch. In ISL, foreigners are inevitably the star players of their respective teams, while their Indian teammates play second fiddle. Does this Indian team have the quality to play open football without losing their tactical form? Do they also have the ability to keep their focus high for 90 minutes?

Chhacchorir masla diye biryani randha jai na (You can’t cook biryani with mixed vegetable ingredients),” legendary PK Banerjee had said in the 1980s when he was in charge of the Indian soccer team. Some four decades later, when Robbie Fowler spoke about the quality of Indian players in the ISL, Banerjee’s observation still rang true. “We still train players. Honestly, some Indian players look like they’ve never been coached before,” Fowler said as head coach of SC East Bengal.

Even Thapa admitted that Indian football “hasn’t moved an inch” since his “guru” made that comment. “Given Stimac’s reputation as a footballer and his experience coaching at the highest level, we were confident that India’s performance would improve under him. But apart from winning the SAFF championship, which we expect to win, the team hasn’t accomplished anything worth mentioning. I don’t blame Stimac entirely though. He needs longer camps to prepare the national team. At our level, this is mandatory,” Thapa said.

Favorites on paper

On paper, India would start as favorites against Cambodia, but in a tournament involving the game’s backbenchers, the Fifa rankings are not the true yardstick and surprises can happen. Not many moons ago, India slipped below 150 in the world rankings. Recent performances over the past two years have also included draws against Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

No wonder then that Stimac preferred to keep expectations in check as he said: “From position 100 to 180-200 there are no easy games. There is a very small margin and quality difference. The difference is if you can score an early goal or if you can score in the first half hour. this makes your game easier. If not, it makes you even more nervous.”

All said and done, this is a banana peel tournament for India. Failing to qualify for the Asian Cup would in all likelihood cost Stimac his job. More importantly, as Thapa said, “It would be disastrous for Indian football.”

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