Indian football icon Sunil Chhetri on Thursday said head coach Igor Stimac is one of the best tacticians he has played under and the team is “very comfortable” playing under the Croatian whose contract is expiring in September.
The 54-year-old Stimac guided India to a historic Asian Cup berth when the Sunil Chhetri-led side made the cut as Group D topper with three wins on the trot.
This was for the first time India made the continental showpiece for a second time in a row.
Often criticised for his defensive approach, the Croatian won many hearts after they signed off their campaign with an emphatic 4-0 win over Hong Kong in the AFC Asian Cup third round qualifiers.
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“He (Stimac) is one of the best managers that we have played under. The boys are very comfortable. He’s very approachable, talks to everyone, treats everyone well. A very warm guy,” Chhetri told reporters during an interaction at the new secretariat here.
“He played at the top level, so understands the players’ psyche. He understands the dressing room and the boys, knows well what to say and what not to say, how to encourage them… it’s something he’s really good at.”
A former defender in the Croatian team that reached the World Cup semifinals in 1998, Stimac came on board on a two-year contract in 2019, replacing Englishman Stephen Constantine, who quit following India’s group stage exit from the Asia Cup.
Stimac’s contract was recently renewed keeping in mind the Asian Cup qualifiers and now it remains to be seen whether the AIFF run by the Committee of Administrators renews his contract.
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Before Stimac, Bob Houghton enjoyed a similar backing from his players ahead of the 2011 Asian Cup.
“He (Houghton) had a more stable team, there were a lot of senior boys with him. With Stimac, he’s a lot more of young side, a lot of youngsters coming in. That’s the slight difference,” Chhetri said.
Chhetri is only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the list of top-scoring active international players. – AIFF
The venue and dates of the Asian Cup, which was earlier scheduled in China in 2023, is yet to be decided after the original hosts pulled out due to COVID-19 related issues.
Asked about the areas of improvement in the team, Chhetri said: “Everything… We need a lot of games, a longer camp. The kind of opponents that we play, everything needs to be planned well.
“So, the calendar is really important now, right from the Durand, the ISL and the Super Cup, we have to make sure we give them enough time to come together and work hard.
“Now we are going to face teams like Korea, Japan, UAE, Qatar (in Asian Cup), it’s going to be a different ball game. As prepared as we can be, it’s going to be better for us.” The 37-year-old scored his 84th goal for India in their rout of Hong Kong in their final match of the Asian Cup qualifier.
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Chhetri is now level with Hungarian Ferenc Puskas in the all-time top-scorers list. He is only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the list of top-scoring active international players.
Asked who he thinks is the next ‘Sunil Chhetri’, he said: “I think we will not be satisfied with only one ‘Sunil Chhetri’.
“To reach the top, only one ‘Sunil Chhetri’ will not suffice. We need quite a few players. but don’t worry we have a lot of players coming up. We are really a talented bunch, we need to give them time. You will get a lot of superstars from here,” he said.