Indian Football: A post-pandemic beginning

Indian coach Igor Stimac with captain Sunil Chhetri [Getty Images]

– India play two international friendlies against Oman (March 25) and UAE  (March 29)
– Inclusion of promising players like Ishan Pandita and Akash Mishra from the ISL
– Talking points include the exclusion of Jerry Mawihmingthanga and Subhasish Bose

It was November 2019 when we last saw the Indian national men’s football team in action. Most of these 492 days were spent by the staunch Indian fans remembering the heart wrenching 1-0 defeat to Oman in their Group E clash of FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifier. That result meant a virtual end to India’s dream of a World Cup berth but despite that, the fans have something to look forward to. The team is scheduled to play the three remaining qualifiers against Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Qatar in June later this year.

The 2021 international season however came early for the fans as the AIl India Football Federation (AIFF) were kind enough to put in place two international friendlies against Oman (March 25 at the Maktoom Bin Rashid Stadium in Dubai) and UAE (March 29 at the Zabeel Stadium in Dubai. A final 27-member squad, cut down from an initial 35, was announced post the Indian Super League (ISL) final and as expected, the ISL proved to be a perfect gateway for selection into the Indian team. The list of 35 included 10 new faces in the camp. Notable missings in the final list included regular captain Sunil Chhetri, who is currently in self-isolation after a positive coronavirus test.

Chhetri’s absence was preceded by Injury concerns to Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul Bheke, Brandon Fernandes, and Asish Rai. This paved the way for newcomers like Akash Mishra, Chinglensana Singh, Mashoor Shereef and Ishan Pandita into the national side. The significant depth in coach Igor Stimac’s new-look squad was based heavily on ISL performances this season. With a focus on working towards the weaknesses of the team, Stimac’s choices highlighted his take on the defensive and clear striking woes that the team suffered in the pre-pandemic era.

Starting with the attacking option, Stimac went with one of the brightest gems in the Indian footballing sphere, Ishan Pandita. With no Chhetri in the squad, Pandita has the potential to be the story of this camp and the two matches that follow.

Indian attacker Ishan Pandita [Getty Images]

Tracking his journey, the attacker went to Spain at the age of 16 and spent almost seven to eight years operating at the Tercera Division, fourth tier of the Spanish League system that consists of almost 350 teams divided in groups of 18. [Primera División, Segunda División A, Segunda División B being the top three tiers of the system]. But a promising start was jolted by a serious injury that put him out of the game for an entire year. Pandita, however, chose to go back at his own expense the following year and continue at the Tercera level. He impressed everyone on his comeback with his positioning and attacking instincts that helped him score multiple goals. This caught the eye of several ISL scouts and managers, with Pandita being eventually grabbed by FC Goa.

In the midfield, absence of Odisha FC’s Jerry Mawihmingthanga raised eyebrows to quite an extent. Mawihmingthanga ended the recently concluded ISL season as the highest assist provider for the Indians. His statistics included five assists in 17 games as well as two incredible goals. Looking at the intense competition at the centre of the field, former U-17 player Jeakson Singh’s pace, height and good feet helped him significantly to get a nod ahead of others apart from being viewed as a possible solution to India’s long term midfield or even centre back problems.

The backline misses a familiar name, that of ATK Mohun Bagan’s Subhasish Bose. A former Churchill Brothers SC- Bengaluru FC-Mumbai City FC star defender, the 25-year-old’s exclusion came as a surprise to many in the Indian football arena. Tactically, it could have been a hit as his teammates at ATK MB, Pritam Kotal and Sandesh Jhingan would have formed an already settled defence line and a chemistry Stimac would not have had to tinker much.

Subhasish Bose in the front [Getty Images]

Hyderabad FC’s Chinglensana Singh and NorthEast United defender Mashoor Shereef selections were justified at the back of some scintillating performances in the league this season. One similar name was that of Ashutosh Mehta, who’s perseverance throughout his playing days in the I-League and the ISL carried him on towards the much-awaited call-up to the national camp.

The Indian goalkeeping options continue to remain their one of the strongest areas on the field. Likes of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Dheeraj Singh, Amrinder Singh and Subhashish Roy Chowdhury form a talented bunch of keepers.

Dheeraj Singh, in particular, has been catching everyone’s eye ever since his U-17 WC display. Set backs like failing to get work a permit despite having claimed a three-year contract with scottish side Motherwell FC in 2018 and impressing the scouts of then Premier League team AFC Bournemouth made Singh come back stronger each time . He finally bagged a five year deal with ATK Mohun Bagan in the ISL after spending the 2018-19 season with Kerala Blasters as their first choice keeper, playing 14 games. Adding to the strength of the keeping inventory are non-selected players like Arshdeep Singh (Odisha FC) and Arindam Bhattacharya (ATK Mohun Bagan).

Dheeraj Singh for Motherwell FC in Scotland [Getty Images]

With a little bit of breathing space and cushion to fall back on, Stimac may still have quite a task at hand against Oman on March 25. One year, four months and six days since the last game, Stimac will want to get a right balance of experience and youth in the final XI along with proper execution of tactical strategies to get the best out of this talent exuberating Indian team.

Few days before the first friendly against Oman, Stimac spoke to Sportstar. He stressed on the need to play quality football and the importance of youngsters taking chances as and when they come in international football. Stimac also cleared the air over his selections from ISL rather than the I-League.

“We learn every day and from every training session. The learning never stops for us. There is not as much pressure on us when we play teams like Qatar or Oman. But when we play teams like Bangladesh of Afghanistan, the onus is on us to create chances and control the game. Our intention is to play good football, and that’s what we are working on… I cannot rely on the past. I can select the squad based on past results, but those players need to work hard. We closely monitor them, and then discuss which players fit into the starting XI.”

“We need to be careful with the new players. We need to proceed systematically. We have to ensure that they provide good football. From technical qualities to game reading and speed of thinking…. I just hope most will use this chance to settle better and will continue to spark for the national team.”

“Right now it’s important that the young players get match time and get valuable experience. As I said, we have young players and experienced players and we plan to use that to our best to build a strong base for the future… At the moment there is no such player (in I-League) who has the quality to be able to join the national team. There is nothing to hide about it. All the best players from I-League are supposed to become part of ISL because they are all followed by ISL clubs scouting… Shanmugam) Venkatesh from my staff is following all the players of the I-League. But the door is open and we are going to act according to the feedback from the I-League scouting system.”

Squad

Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury, Dheeraj Singh

Defenders: Ashutosh Mehta, Akash Mishra, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Chinglensana Singh, Adil Khan, Mandar Rao Dessai, Mashoor Shereef

Midfielders: Rowllin Borges, Lalengmawia, Jeakson Singh, Raynier Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa, Bipin Singh, Yasir Mohammad, Suresh Singh, Halicharan Narzary, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Ashique Kuruniyan

Forwards: Manvir Singh, Ishan Pandita, Hitesh Sharma, Liston Colaco

Both the matches will be broadcasted live in India on Eurosport. The first match will start at 7:15 pm while the second match will begin at 9:45 pm IST on their respective dates.