India coach Igor Stimac: A giant is definitely out of its slumber

Football has always been the poorer cousin in cricket-obsessed India, the South Asian nation with a population of 1.4 billion, but Stimac cautions against expectations at 2023 Asian Cup

India's head coach Igor Stimac has often been at loggerheads with Indian officials. AFP
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Igor Stimac says Indian football is "definitely out of its slumber" but the coach guarded against his side going deep at the Asian Cup, which starts in Qatar on Friday.

Football has always been the poorer cousin in cricket-obsessed India, the South Asian nation with a population of 1.4 billion.

The football team is ranked 102 in the world by Fifa, one place below Kosovo with a population of less than 2 million.

Stimac, a former Croatia international who played Premier League football with Derby County and West Ham United, was appointed India coach in May 2019 replacing Englishman Stephen Constantine.

India qualified for the rescheduled 2023 Asian Cup with three wins from three against Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Cambodia, scoring eight times and conceding once.

"A giant is definitely out of its slumber now," declared Stimac, before cautioning: "But I reckon it will take us another four years to enter the top 10 in Asia."

India's campaign starts on Saturday against 25th-ranked Australia and they have a mountain to climb in Qatar to get out of a group also containing Uzbekistan and Syria.

"We are far from being happy with the draw but it is what it is," the 56-year-old Stimac, part of the Croatia team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup, told AFP.

"With a very short time for preparation it's difficult to expect great things, but my even greater concern are the injuries to some of our key players.

"Anyway, we are going to give our best and make it very difficult for our opponents."

This will be India's fifth Asian Cup. They were runners-up in 1964 in a tournament that had only four teams, but apart from that they have never got out of the group phase.

They have never reached the World Cup.

Stimac's side lost 3-0 at home to reigning Asian champions Qatar in World Cup qualifying in November, underlining the task facing them in the coming weeks.

They also suffered friendly defeats to Malaysia and Iraq, before beating Kuwait 1-0 away in World Cup qualifying.

Stimac says more than 20 youngsters have been brought into the squad during his reign "and our supporters are finally enjoying some exciting football watching their national team".

But it is an indication of the limitations of his squad that skipper Sunil Chhetri, at 39, remains India's biggest star.

Chhetri has plundered 93 international goals, putting him among the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo (128) and Lionel Messi (106) on the all-time list.

Stimac says the forward can bow out at a time of his choosing.

"We are not putting any pressure on him whatsoever," said Stimac.

"That's up to him."

"If he keeps enjoying his game with the same hunger and maintaining such brilliant fitness levels then we are there for him as long as it takes," he added.

"He is a proper role model for many Indian kids dreaming about becoming football players."

Updated: January 08, 2024, 8:43 AM