After a bit of huffing and puffing, the Indian men's football team finally managed to directly qualify for the third round of AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers after finishing third in Group E of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and Asian Cup 2023 joint Qualifiers.
With Qatar and Oman in their group, India were never serious contenders for the World Cup race but finishing third was expected to be a straightforward job after they were pitted alongside Afghanistan and Bangladesh in Group E.
However, India under coach Igor Stimac had their job made a lot tougher after dispiriting draws against Afghanistan and Bangladesh in 2019. The qualifiers only resumed this month in a centralised venue in Qatar where India just about did enough to finish third in the group.
The late scrape didn't go down well with many fans and stakeholders of Indian football. Stimac has admitted that India should have had better results from their matches but said the job was made more difficult because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of matches.
"Mission accomplished," he said during a media interaction. "In a few words, it was difficult. The last 500 days with the pandemic around us, not getting the opportunity to train but we accomplished the aim, which is more important. Is that good enough? We are not happy."
"We expected few more points from the group. But at the end of the day, we need to be happy given everything that surrounded us. Hopefully, we have more friendlies in the future and we can fulfil the expectations of the fans."
The matches of the third round of the Asian Cup Qualifiers will take place between February and September 2022, But Stimac's contract with the team comes to an end in September this year. His initial contract ran till May this year and was extended by the All India Football Federations' (AIFF) Technical Committee till September 2021. The Committee is expected to meet again before September to decide about Stimac's future, and India's performance in the recently-ended qualifiers will play a big role in influencing the final decision over his contract.
Talking about his contract situation, Stimac said he is ready to accept whatever decision AIFF makes.
"I am honoured to be working with AIFF. I appreciate the support given. In the circumstances that we were surrounded with, it was impossible to give more. All I can say, we have a good platform for the future. It is now on the AIFF technical committee, AIFF, and President to decide my future. If they say they are not happy with my performance I need to accept that," he said.
In case his contract is extended, Stimac already has his plans ready for the future which includes six friendlies from September to November to make up for the lack of competitive football action in India's domestic calendar.
"Our plan is to start the camp in August. We would like to prepare for two friendlies which are due in September. If the ISL doesn't start till November then we can continue preparing like a national team throughout September with two friendly games, October with two friendly games, and November with two friendly games," the Croatian said.
"Hopefully by that time ISL will start and players will have competitive matches all way till February, till the beginning of the third round (of Asian Cup qualifiers)."
Discussing more about the work he has done with the Indian side, Stimac added that he has helped the team make the transition from being a defensive side under Stephen Constantine to a more technical unit.
"I was brought in to change the game from a defensive, counter-attacking style to a more progressive version of football that involves us improving our passing and having more control of the game. We have improved our passing accuracy and possession " we have become more technical," stated Stimac.
"I really am grateful that the players did their best out there on the pitch. But we all need to understand that it takes a lot of work and patience to do this. I said, when I joined two years ago, that there will be some suffering on the way, and I stand by it. That's the only way we can go through this transformation."
He did, however, have a word of caution for the Indian football stakeholders as he once again advocated for an increase in the number of matches Indian players play domestically, so as to expedite their progress.
"Indian football is going forward there's no doubt about that but we cannot stand still. We need to start speeding up. Once this (COVID-19) pandemic is over the league will go on for eight-to-nine months and our players will get about 40 games. Then we can expect more from our boys," Stimac said.
"They need to play more than 40 matches in a season and it is only then that they can compete against the best in the continent. When we speak about the clubs, if clubs are operating only for five months, what is happening with the players for the rest of the months? We need to start thinking about how to organise teamwork for players who are left out of training sessions for a longer period."