Players must find mental strength to stay fit until AFC Asian Cup: India head coach Igor Stimac
As the Hero Intercontinental Cup draws near, the Indian men's football team is busy maximizing their efforts in the preparatory camp to demonstrate a dominant performance in the upcoming tournament in Bhubaneswar.
The Hero Intercontinental Cup is inching closer and the Indian men's football team is busy maximizing their efforts in the preparatory camp to demonstrate a dominant performance in the upcoming tournament in Bhubaneswar.
India commenced their AFC Asian Cup preparations earlier this year with the Hero Tri-Nation tournament and will now participate in the Hero Intercontinental Cup followed by the SAFF Championship. The Blue Tigers ranked 101 in the FIFA rankings, will enter these tournaments as the second-highest-ranked team, with Lebanon (ranked 99) also participating in both events.
Indian head coach Igor Stimac has acknowledged the importance of facing higher-ranked teams and playing multiple matches during the current window. He firmly believes that the increased game time will significantly enhance the team's prospects of excelling in the future.
"As every team, we are always trying to find better teams to play against and improve our game. We didn't have enough time to find better-ranked opponents, but I hope in the future, this will change because, for quicker improvement, you need to play tough teams to challenge your strengths and see where you stand," Stimac said during a virtual press conference on Saturday.
"But we are happy with what we have. We have so many tournaments coming up this year starting with the Hero Intercontinental Cup, followed by the SAFF Championship, so possibly nine matches in less than a month. And considering that in the past 12 months, we played eight games, it's a huge achievement. This is the first time we are preparing in such a way, playing so many matches. I'm confident this will give us better a chance to get results," he added.
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The Blue Tigers will continue their preparation with the King's Cup (Thailand) and Merdeka Cup (Malaysia) scheduled for September and October, respectively. Following these tournaments, they will participate in the first two matches of the joint qualification for the FIFA World Cup 2026 and the AFC Asian Cup 2027 in November.
However, the 55-year-old coach believes that the final preparatory camp will be the most crucial, as it will determine the team's performance in the continental championship.
"We will play many matches before the end of the year but they don't have much of a connection to the AFC Asian Cup because what happens in the AFC Asian Cup will depend on our preparation in December and the amount of time we get for it. Football is a kind of sport where things are changing on a daily basis. Who will be the best-performing players in December has nothing to do with what we are doing now, to be honest. We expect all our players to maintain their fitness level which will not be easy because there is a long season to come, which is far different than the previous years. They will need to find the mental strength to stay in form and maintain their fitness until the AFC Asian Cup," explained Stimac.
In June, India will face a demanding schedule as they commence their Hero Intercontinental Cup campaign against Mongolia on June 9. Subsequently, they will take on Vanuatu and Lebanon on June 12 and June 15, respectively. The top two teams from the group stage will battle it out in the final on June 18. The Blue Tigers will have little respite as they will swiftly travel to Bengaluru to confront Pakistan in their SAFF Championship opener on June 21.
Stimac shared his intentions to conduct extended camps and explore different playing formations. He has almost identified a core group of players with whom he would like to be part of the continental showpiece event in Qatar next year, but he also aims to add a few more players to strengthen certain positions. Additionally, he revealed plans to rotate players in order to manage the demanding schedule and cope with the intense heat and humid weather conditions.
"I think with such heat and humidity, it's impossible to expect that we're going to play the same 11 players in each game. So, that's why we have 26 of them. We will try various things in the Hero Intercontinental Cup. We are ready to rotate players and have fresh legs from game to game," Stimac shared.
"We are using this long camp to improve our passing, finishing, and patterns in the final third. We do have a core base of players but we're always looking to strengthen each position in the squad and the competition for them is most welcome.
"As of now, I would say that the full-back positions are wide open. We need more physical and mental strength in these positions and a better understanding of how to defend more than how to attack because when we are up against good wingers, our fullbacks face problems in closing down gaps and preventing crosses," he added.
The Indian men's football team has recently recruited renowned sports psychologist Shayamal Vallabhjee to join their ranks, with the aim of prioritizing the mental well-being of the players.
Commentating on the inclusion of the sports psychologist, Stimac, said, “Shayamal has the experience of working with various sports organizations and top athletes across the world. He's working on the players' mental strength, providing lectures on meditation on the off days. He opens players' minds about things apart from the training pitch, which can help them to improve their game.”
The Croatian expressed his gratitude to the Odisha Government for their invaluable support. He also called upon the fans in Bhubaneswar to unite and stand firmly behind the Blue Tigers, as they did in Imphal during the Hero Tri-Nation tournament and in Kolkata during the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.
"We are very thankful to the Odisha Government for hosting us and providing us with such great facilities for the work we need to execute. The team atmosphere is great here in Bhubaneswar. We are looking forward to each and every game here.
"In Manipur, we got so much love from the fans in the stands. When the crowd supports you in such a way, you cannot fail. Good things are happening in not just football, but sports in general here in Odisha, and I hope the fans here will respond in a way similar to Manipur and Kolkata previously. It's a great opportunity for everyone to support the national team and stick behind the boys," Stimac insisted.