Stimac felt a young central midfielder would fit better on the wings; and having watched many Indian Super League (ISL) matches, he insisted on the inclusion of 30-year-old Adil Khan among the probables for the King’s Cup, believing his physique and style was best suited to play in multiple positions.
Stimac had got it right; FC Pune City’s Mr Versatile is indeed comfortable playing in defence as well as midfield. The Croatian takes charge of the team next week, and for someone who took his country to the World Cup in 2014 and ensured a place among the top five in FIFA rankings, India will be his most challenging assignment.
“He has seen the (Indian) players and knows what to expect. We are a very hard-working team. From me, the most experienced player, to the youngster, we all give our best to improve every day,” said India captain Sunil Chhetri.
The former Croatian defender has little time to get going. An 11-day camp in Delhi is all that he will get before the King’s Cup in Thailand, and unlike his predecessor Stephen Constantine, he won’t have the luxury of flexing muscle against lower-ranked teams like Nepal.
Stimac, who also played in Spain and England during a 17-year-long top-flight career, has told the AIFF that he will not encourage “small-team football” or start with a defensive mindset.
The Croatian is also not averse to taking on the bigwigs, even if India may not be ready for such challenges. In the Inter-Continental Cup for example, India’s opponents are North Korea, Syria and Tajikistan, all with more quality than India, while at the King’s Cup, India first face Curacao and then tackle either Thailand or Vietnam, both technically gifted teams.
“We’ve got Stimac so that he can take Indian football to the next level. He is not afraid to take on the big guns too,” said a senior member of the technical committee.
India’s first win in the AFC Asian Cup in over 50 years and a gutsy performance in the tournament has heightened expectations. But it won’t be easy for Stimac, given the lack of depth in several areas, particularly central defence where Sandesh Jhingan remains the only notable name. Upfront, a successor for soon-to-be 35 Chhetri remains a distant dream, while uncertainty over the national calendar could leave him with little time for preparations during international match days.
There is no denying that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has set the bar higher for Stimac, the first World Cupper to coach India. It remains to be seen if he can live up to the hype.