Long queues outside the Salt Lake Stadium for match tickets attested to Kolkata’s love for football. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) underestimated it by initially issuing only 12,000 complimentary tickets, assuming no more than 10,000 fans would turn up for India’s matches at the Asian Cup Group D qualifiers. They had to do the course correction after Sunil Chhetri’s comment that home advantage would be lost if stands remained empty. Now, as India begin their campaign against Cambodia on Wednesday, more than 50,000 fans are expected to be in attendance.
Strong home support guarantees an electric atmosphere. But it doesn’t ensure success on the pitch. India under their head coach Igor Stimac have embraced a reactive, ultra-defensive style of late, especially after their 1-1 draw in the World Cup qualifiers against Bangladesh in October 2019. In an international friendly against Jordan last month, in the lead-up to the Asian Cup qualifiers, Stimac used a defensive block so low that the defenders almost breathed down their goalkeeper’s neck. Jordan won the game 2-0. The head coach’s low block so far hasn’t achieved anything apart from keeping the scorelines respectable.
The Asian Cup qualifiers present an opportunity to break the shackles, against lower-ranked opponents. Cambodia’s Fifa ranking is 171 vis-à-vis India’s 106. Hong Kong and Afghanistan are at 147 and 150 respectively. Fans demand proactive football and Stimac is ready to oblige.
“I would say we have prepared for any case scenario, but we intend to press from the first minute of the game and put Cambodia under high pressure. We need to prove that we are the favourites and we need to control as well as be ready to handle their counter-attacks,” he said at the pre-match press conference.
The AIFF’s technical committee chairman Shyam Thapa urged the team to play “open” football. “Draws achieve you nothing. India must play open football. I have seen these players playing expressive football while turning up for their respective clubs in the ISL. I don’t know why they become cagey when on India duty,” Thapa, a former India centre-forward, told The Indian Express.
His ISL comparison offers relevance, but there’s a catch. In the ISL, foreigners are inevitably the star performers for their respective sides, while their Indian teammates play second fiddle. Does this Indian team have the quality to play open football without losing their tactical shape? Also, do they have the ability to keep their concentration level high for 90 minutes?
“Chhacchorir masla diye biryani randha jai na (you can’t cook biryani with mix-veg ingredients),” the legendary PK Banerjee had said in the 1980s, when he was in charge of the Indian football team. About four decades down the line, when Robbie Fowler spoke about the quality of Indian players in the ISL, Banerjee’s observation still rang true. “We are still coaching players. In all honesty, some Indian players look like they haven’t been coached before,” Fowler had said in his capacity as the head coach of SC East Bengal.
Even Thapa admitted that Indian football “hasn’t moved an inch” since his ‘guru’ made the comment. “Given Stimac’s reputation as a footballer and his experience of coaching at the highest level, we were hopeful that India’s performance under him would improve. But apart from winning the SAFF Championship, which we are expected to win, the team hasn’t done anything noteworthy. I don’t fully blame Stimac though. He needs longer camps to prepare the national team. At our level, this is mandatory,” Thapa said.
Favourites on paper
On paper, India would start as favourites against Cambodia, but in a tournament involving the game’s backbenchers, Fifa rankings aren’t the true marker and upsets can happen. Not many moons ago, India had slipped below 150 in world rankings. Also, some recent performances, over the last two years, include draws against Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Little wonder then that Stimac preferred to keep expectations in check as he said: “From position 100 until 180-200, there are no easy games. There’s a very small margin and difference in quality. The difference is that if you can score an early goal or if you can score in the first half an hour; that makes your game easier. If you don’t, it makes you more nervous.”
All said and done, this is a banana skin tournament for India. Failure to qualify for the Asian Cup, in all likelihood, would cost Stimac his job. More importantly, as Thapa said: “It would be catastrophic for Indian football.”