Igor Stimac has had a transformative effect on the way India play their football ever since his appointment as head coach of the senior national team in May 2019. The former Croatian international, who played for his country at Euro 1996 and helped them finish third at the 1998 World Cup, entered Indian football with a wealth of experience in management as well. He has previously managed Croatia on the international stage and trained the likes of Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, besides also handing debuts to Ante Rebic, Mateo Kovacic, Alen Halilovic and Ivan Perisic, to name a few.
Under Stimac, the Blue Tigers have been playing a more attractive brand of football and slight signs of progress can be seen, most notably during India’s 0-0 draw against Asian champions Qatar in the 2022 FIFA World Cup & AFC Asian Cup 2023 Joint Qualifiers. Even though his record of one win, four draws and five losses from 11 matches as head coach may not read well, there are plenty of encouraging signs with several players rising to the international challenge under his stewardship. So as he celebrates his 53rd birthday, we take a look at a few of the most influential players during his brief reign so far.
After making his international debut in 2012, Adil Khan was recalled to the national by Stimac last year. The towering centre-back proved himself in the Indian Super League to put his injury concerns behind him and was rewarded with a call-up to the national side by the Croat. He has since repaid the faith shown in him and is now a crucial member of their backline.
Adil’s vocal leadership and physicality makes him one of the first few names on the team sheet and he’s also shown that he’s capable of contributing on the other end of the pitch as he demonstrated when he headed in a late equalizer against Bangladesh in the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers at the Salt Lake Stadium last year.
Big things have been expected from Anirudh Thapa ever since the former national team head coach Stephen Constantine handed the young midfielder his international debut in 2017. And it’s safe to say that Thapa hasn’t disappointed so far for both for the club and country. An Indian Super League winner with Chennaiyin FC, Thapa’s ability to be in the thick of thing in the attacking third has always been evident.
On the scoresheet for India’s first win in the Asian Cup in 55 years when the Blue Tigers beat Thailand 4-1 in the 2019 edition of the competition, Thapa has gone on to establish himself as an integral member at the centre of the park. The 2018 AIFF Men Emerging Footballer of the Year also scored the winner against Thailand in the very first win of the Stimac era in the King’s Cup and is likely to play a defining role for the Blue Tigers in the future.
After being handed his national team debut by Stimac, Brandon Fernandes has grabbed the opportunity with both hands and has grown into an increasingly influential presence in the midfield of late. Since making his debut last June, Brandon has provided three assists in national colours and is often at the heart of the action on both ends of the pitch.
A set-piece specialist, the FC Goa playmaker’s ability to find teammates remains unmatched in recent times and it was his corner that met the head of Adil for the defender’s late equalizer against Bangladesh. With more international experience now under his belt, expect Brandon to go from strength to strength in the years to come.
A man for all seasons regardless of who the coach may be, the one constant over the last decade in Indian football has been Sunil Chhetri. The all-time leading goal-scorer (72) for the country seems to continue aging like wine fine and it’s no surprise that he keeps delivering. No other player has scored more than Chhetri’s five goals for India in the Stimac era.
He’s also provided an assist in that time but his contribution beyond the numbers is what’s most significant. His assuring presence on the pitch and brilliant work ethic sets an example for the rest of the team. Currently second on the list of active goal-scorers in international football, behind Cristiano Ronaldo and above Lionel Messi, Chhetri remains Stimac’s and his country’s most prized asset.
Feature image courtesy: Twitter / @stimac_igor