“The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”
In his poem “Idylls of the King”, Lord Alfred Tennyson pays an ode to the only constant of the world, change. On his deathbed, the great King Arthur consoles the bereaving Sir Bedivere by stating that in God’s divine plan, even an institution as glorious as the “Knights of the Round Table” will erode, yielding place to new organizations. It is of little surprise then that as of now, Indian football is also undergoing a similar change. With the age of Stephen Constantine well and truly behind us, it is time for the new coach Igor Stimac to awake the “sleeping giant”.
Who is Igor Stimac and what are his credentials?
If your CV reads that you are a World up semi-finalist and that you have had influential campaigns at big Premier League and La Liga clubs, you are bound to be taken note of. Alongside the reputation and the obvious technical excellence, Stimac was the only person who actually flew in to attend his interview at the Football House in Delhi. His presentation, connections, and sincerity reverberated positively within the All India Football Federation. In doing so, he ousted the likes of Albert Roca, Sweden’s Hakan Erikson and World Cupper Lee ming-Sun for the job.
The Croatian tactician was a part of their legendary 1998 team, which made it all the way to the last four in the World Cup finals. A part of his country’s golden generation, he played as a centre-back and was teammates with the likes of Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker. A Derby County legend, Stimac took the Croatian national team to the World Cup finals in 2014 but he left inexplicably before the Mundial kicked off. Having represented his national side 53 times, he has also managed clubs in his native land, Iran and Qatar, albeit without any significant success.
The Kings’ Cup will be Stimac’s first challenge.
Having worked with a group of 36 players since the last week of May to prepare for the Kings’ Cup in Thailand, an “A”- rated FIFA tournament that India is playing for the first time in 38 years, Stimac has shortlisted 23 players who have already departed for Bangkok. As per reports, Stimac was focused more on getting an understanding of the players and their levels and as such, sees this as a prepatory tournament for the Intercontinental Cup that will be held in India in July. India takes on Curacao on the 5th of June.
Stimac is not afraid of taking the hard decisions.
Having dropped the likes of Rowllin Borges, Redeem Tlang, Nishu Kumar and Jobby Justin from the 23-man shortlist, Stimac has drawn the ire of fans who have already questioned his philosophy. However, without seeing his team in action, it would be foolish to draw conclusions as the 51-year-old had also dropped Ivan Rakitic from the Croatian team during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers due to lack of form. He is not afraid to take tough decisions and during his media interactions, he has iterated the same view over and over again.
The final list of 23 for the King’s Cup is as follows:
GOALKEEPERS: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Kamaljit Singh.
DEFENDERS: Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Sandesh Jhingan, Adil Khan, Subhasish Bose.
MIDFIELDERS: Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa, Raynier Fernandes, Pronay Halder, Vinit Rai, Saha Abdul, Amarjit Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Michael Soosairaj.
FORWARDS: Balwant Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Farukh Choudhary, Manvir Singh.
What is Stimac’s coaching philosophy?
Stimac is not really known for his attacking abilities, but he is looking to change that. Having chosen only five established defenders in the squad, reports have emerged that he might use three at the back, a strategy that previous manager Stephen Constantine had been experimenting with. With the retirement of Anas Edathodika in January, the onus now falls on Sandesh Jhinghan to guide the likes of Adil Khan and marshal his troops. The midfield will possibly feature Thapa, Brandon and Pronay Haldar with Udanta and Sahal out wide. It is possible that Balwant and Chhetri will play as the duo upfront, giving the options of both long and short ball. Given his nature of origin and focus on technical excellence, India is most likely to employ a medium-pressing, quick passing, counter-attacking brand of football that is reflective of Eastern European football philosophies.
The exclusion of the likes of Tlang, Justin and the unfortunate injury to Nishu Kumar will no doubt cause both concern amongst fan and experts, but they would be wise to be patient with Stimac. His loyalty is unquestionably towards the development of Indian football, to which end he has promised to ensure frequent friendlies with European opponents. Moreover, his statement on the I-League and the Indian Super League reflects the fact that he is both studying and following local and not-so-popular. Merit will be the basis of selection, something that was allegedly lacking under Constantine’s era. This gives hope to the likes of Soosairaj and Rahul Bheke, who have both had stellar seasons with their clubs but have been overlooked repeatedly for inexplicable reasons.
So can we win the Kings’ Cup?
Given that winning only two games ensures India’s triumph at the Kings’ Cup, it makes the competition as a short but a spectacularly competitive one. Curacao is 19 places above India in the FIFA rankings, but if India can find a way to provide the support to talisman Sunil Chhetri, they have hope. Having scored 11 out of India’s last 19 goals, Chhetri will need his forward line to fire on all cylinders. The final will have either Thailand (whom India thrashed 4-0 in January) or Vietnam, so chances of a triumph are certainly present, even if they are not in our favor. A good performance will boost India’s confidence and help them shake off the disappointment of crashing out of the AFC Asian Cup will finally be shaken off.