When the senior men’s National football team knocked a higher-ranked Kyrgyzstan off its perch in the concluding match of the Tri-Nation International Football tournament at Imphal, Igor Stimac could not help betraying a satisfactory smile.
The National coach quickly left the podium after the awards ceremony to allow his boys to celebrate with the trophy they justifiably deserved.
The Croatian World Cup bronze medallist (1998), who has been in charge of the ‘Blue Tigers’ since the summer of 2019, had just seen his team’s fifth win in an international event at home turf (including the three Asian Cup qualification matches in 2022). The win against a robust and technically sound opposition like Kyrgyzstan shows Stimac’s team is growing out of the notion of mediocrity that is generally assigned to it.
It was a moment to assess the dynamics of growth as the men’s National team lifted a title ever since the Asian Cup qualification in June last year.
Having achieved the qualification, Stimac was looking for greater accomplishments from the team, which is now assigned to prove itself among the superiors in the main stage of the competition.
“We have been waiting for a long time to play friendly matches at home and this tournament provided us the opportunity to show how much we have progressed in our football,” Stimac said. “We look to start the preparation for the Asian Cup in May. And now we are here to enjoy and celebrate the success of our players in ISL,” he added.
India, ranked 106 in the FIFA men’s rankings at the start of the tournament, beat 159th-ranked Myanmar 1-0 and then went on to produce a much better showing in the next match to outshine the 94th-ranked Kyrgyz Republic. That was the right prelude for the Blue Tigers to start their Asian Cup preparations, which get underway with a longer camp in May. The tri-nation crown came as a confidence booster for the national team that now faces the mighty proposition of reaching the knock-out stage of the continental championship.
“When you are looking at the Asian Cup, you’ll see three better ranked teams in the group and for that we need to prepare for a good middle-press football with good counter attacking options,” Stimac said, while highlighting the need for his boys to master the expertise of outperforming opponents perched much higher in the international ranking.
Stimac is banking on players like N. Sivasakthi and Ashique Kuruniyan in attack to take forward his plans. “One of them is Sivasatkhi, the other is Ashique and we are keeping an option for a third one open. It is more about the playing system that we are planning,” Stimac said. “Sivasakthi may be very valuable to us as he has got extreme speed and can prove to be a very important option,” he added.
The two named by the coach skipped the tournament because of injuries but the coach said that he is beginning to trim his findings based on the performances in the Indian Super League. This was the occasion for the likes of Lallianzuala Chhangte, Manvir Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Bipin Singh Akash Mishra, Naoram Mahesh Singh and Brandon Fernandes alongside the captain Sunil Chhetri to prove their worth.
Chhetri continued to remain the key marksman for the Indian side as Stimac mentioned Manvir and Ishan Pandita as two other characters in his attacking plans. Unlike a few names who were rested because of injury, the 38-year-old Chhetri did not skip the event and led the side with his usual energy and skill to secure two important wins.
For the people: Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri acknowledges fans after their 2-0 win against Kyrgyz Republic in the Tri-Nation International football tournament last month.
| Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR
“My hunger to score is the same as it has always been. I don’t want to sound pompous, but I feel that there aren’t many players who are as hungry to score as I am,” revealed Chhetri, as he scored his 85th international goal from a penalty against the Kyrgyz Republic.
The Indian captain hailed the tournament saying that it gave him and his colleagues the opportunity to refresh themselves after a gruelling ISL season. “The national team camp gave us an outlet. If the camp wasn’t there, it would have been more difficult for us to cope. I can tell you that the boys who are not there, it’s much more difficult for them,” he said.
There was something fresh about the locale of the final — the Khuman Lampak Stadium. Imphal was introduced as the latest venue for the Indian national team as it hosted its first international football match. There was an overwhelming response from the fans, who filled up the 30,000-capacity stadium giving voluble support to make India’s win memorable. It was a just tribute to Manipur’s giant stature as the cornucopia of talents.
The current squad of 23 contained seven local names — Chinglensana Singh, Jeakson Singh, Suresh Wangjam, Roshan Singh, Mohammad Yasir, Naorem Mahesh and Bipin Singh — giving enough proof of Manipur’s contribution to Indian football.
“A lot of things could perhaps have been better, but what these matches in Imphal have done is show what it takes to host football at this level. Regardless of facilities, the state is producing top footballers in the country by the dozen, and if we do well, there will be many more to come,” said Suresh Wangjam. And just as the confetti shower settled down after India’s trophy triumph came the announcement from Manipur’s Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh, about building a modern 75,000-capacity stadium.