Each Game Will Be a Challenge: Igor Stimac Readies India for Asian Cup in Intercontinental Cup

The Indian men’s football team start their hectic schedule of matches with the Intercontinental Cup in Bhubaneswar.

The SAFF Championship, in Bengaluru, will follow. Then the Kings’ Cup in Thailand and Merdeka Cup in Malaysia, in the months of September and October respectively.

All in preparation for the AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia.

Firstly, India, ranked 101 in the latest FIFA Rankings, open their campaign in the Intercontinental Cup against Mongolia (183) after Lebanon (99) and Vanuatu (164) face off in the tournament opener.

“Each game will be a challenge for us. We’ve had enough time for preparation. We need to be physically ready for these games and take everything into our hands. Our players are here to prove that they deserve their place in the national team,” head coach Igor Stimac said at the pre-tournament press conference.

Igor has been camping in Bhubaneswar since May 15 and has had his ‘much-needed’ time with the Indian squad. Given India could potentially play as many as nine matches over the next month – considering they qualify for finals in the SAFF Championship as well.

“I’ll try to use these upcoming games in the best way to prepare for the Asian Cup. These games will serve as a challenge for our players to prove their ability at the international level, even though the opponents are not the ones we’ll face in the Asian Cup,” Stimac said.

“But they’re good and competitive. Mongolia are very competitive, and aggressive and have so many youngsters in midfield and upfront. They play an aggressive style of football with a high press and counter-attacking football, so no games are easy. Each game is a great challenge for any of our players who are here to prove that they deserve their position in the national team,” he added.

Even though the number of games on offer is comparatively high, Stimac clarified that the quality of those games will matter in the grand scheme of things, especially in the run-up to the Asian Cup.

“To clarify, we cannot say that this tournament is proper preparation for the Asian Cup. Because it really isn’t. You know we don’t have seven first-team players here for various injury issues. At least two of them are going to be in the starting XI for the Asian Cup, like Brandon (Fernandes) and Manvir (Singh),” Stimac said.

“So, how do we start preparing for the Asian Cup when they aren’t with us? So we just hope that they come back in the best possible way with their strength for the upcoming Indian Super League (ISL) season and then we can start preparations for the Asian Cup from September onwards,” he added.

Sunil Chhetri in training (AIFF)

Football legend Sunil Chhetri revealed that he has never played in Bhubaneshwar for the national team and is eager to don the Indian jersey.

“Me and the boys are very excited. It’s strange that we’ve never played in Bhubaneswar or anywhere in Odisha before in my career, so we’re really happy to be here,” Chhetri said at the pre-tournament press conference.

“Everything from our hospitality to training pitches has been top-notch, and we’ve made good use of the three weeks here. Hopefully, we don’t have just three games here but four (including the final),” he added.

Mongolia’s head coach Ichiro Otsuka, on the other hand, said his side will look to gain from the tournament.

“All the other three teams are ranked higher than us. But we will fight and try to have better games against them. We’re very motivated to showcase our football here,” Otsuka said.

“Compared to us, the Indian team is very strong. Later this year, we’ll have our first round of the World Cup Qualifiers, where we will face higher-ranked teams. So we want to concentrate on defending first. But, of course, we also have some ideas going forward,” he added.