From national team set-up to domestic tournaments, there have been changes galore in recent years but the so-called ‘sleeping giant’ has not managed to find a permanent place in the top 100 of the FIFA world rankings
Back in 2006, then FIFA president Sepp Blatter described India as a ‘sleeping giant’ in the world of football. Thirteen years later, the current head coach of the Indian football team — Igor Stimac — decided to use the same phrase once again to make the point that the country has the potential to produce good talent. This is a major indication of the pace of development when it comes to the ‘beautiful game’ in India. From national team set-up to domestic tournaments, there have been changes galore in recent years but the so-called ‘sleeping giant’ has not managed to find a permanent place in the top 100 of the FIFA world rankings.
The year 2019 started on the best possible note for Sunil Chettri and Co as they defeated Thailand 4-1 in their opening match of AFC Asian Cup. The victory was a huge statement by a young team under the tutelage of Stephen Constantine and it made the nation believe that the team can finally reach the knockout stages of the competition. However, a slew of missed chances against United Arab Emirates that resulted in a 0-2 defeat and last-minute heartbreak against Bahrain in the final match of the group meant that the Blue Tigers once again had to bid adieu to the continental tournament in the early stages.
“In the match against UAE, we got a couple of clear chances in the first twenty minutes and the match would have been over if we scored. But, we were unlucky to miss all the opportunities and that resulted in some pressure. In the last match (against Bahrain), we went with an extremely defensive approach and that did not work out well for us,” midfielder Anirudh Thapa explained.
Right after the match against Bahrain, the team was handed another shock as head coach Stephen Constantine decided to step down from his post. The players were informed of the decision just after the final whistle and it signaled the end of a four-year tenure that saw India breaking into the top 100 for the first time in over two decades. What followed was a long-drawn process to choose his successor and the search finally ended with FIFA World Cup bronze-medalist Igor Stimac taking over the job in May 2019.
The appointment of the former Croatia international was met with a lot of chatter from the experts and fans alike with the expectation that his experience with top teams will be able to change India’s fortunes. However, defence turned out to be the main issue for him in the early days as he started his tenure with a 1-3 loss against Curacao followed by two heavy defeats at the hands of Tajikistan and North Korea. Things did not improve once the World Cup qualifiers started as India squandered their lead against Oman in their first game as they were defeated 1-2 despite putting on a good show.
Next up, India travelled to Doha without their talisman Sunil Chhetri and they were able to survive waves of attacks from Qatar to hold the reigning Asian champions to a goalless draw in one of the most stunning results for Indian football in its history. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu produced a tremendous performance in front of the goal as India became the only side to not lose to Qatar in 2019.
“That was a very big result for India. Especially when we were playing away against the Asian champions and to get a point there is huge. The team were actually quite organised and we have to give them credit for what they achieved,” former India skipper Bhaichung Bhutia said.
The result made the fans hopeful once again but the next round of matches saw India once again squandering easy chances to finish games. Two draws against Afghanistan and Bangladesh followed by a close loss against Oman meant that India finished the year at the bottom of their group and also with no hope of making the cut for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. With just one win from ten matches, it has been a less than ideal start for Stimac and although the likes of Ashique Kuruniyan and Sahal Abdul Samad did justify their selections, the results were just not there for Stimac to show in his first year.
“Stephen was defensively more compact and Stimac is more open. It is the decision of individual coaches on how they want to play. But overall, the results are very important for any coach at the end of the day and with Stimac, that has not happened till now,” Bhutia explained.
With three more qualifiers coming up in the first half of 2020 and Stimac announcing that the team will play ten friendlies between March and June, the schedule is packed for the ‘Blue Tigers’ and only time will tell whether the ‘sleeping giants’ can finally get going on the global stage.