AIFF Media Team
BHUBANESWAR: The Hero Intercontinental Cup is less than a week away, and head coach Igor Stimac and his boys are keen on putting on a strong show and emerging victorious in Bhubaneswar.
India (101 in the FIFA Rankings) are the second-highest ranked team in the Hero Intercontinental Cup and the following SAFF Championship in Bengaluru, behind Lebanon (99), who will participate in both tournaments. While playing better-ranked opponents is undoubtedly the best way to prepare for the all-important AFC Asian Cup in Qatar next year, Stimac acknowledged that several games and a longer camp in the current window will be useful for rotation and to provide more gametime for all.
"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," said Stimac.
"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.
In September, India will participate in the King's Cup in Thailand. Also, in the same month, the U-23s will travel to China for the AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers and later the Asian Games as well. The Merdeka Cup in Malaysia will next be on the cards for the senior team in October, followed by the first two matches of the joint qualification for the FIFA World Cup 2026 and the AFC Asian Cup 2027 in November.
"We will play many matches before the end of the year but they don't have much of a connection to the Asian Cup because what happens in the 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 Asian Cup," explained Stimac.
India begin their Hero Intercontinental Cup campaign against Mongolia (June 9) and then Vanuatu (June 12) before squaring off in what's expected to be a close contest against Lebanon (June 15). The final will see the top two teams battle it out on June 18. There will be no time to rest for the Blue Tigers as they fly out to Bengaluru almost immediately to face Pakistan in their SAFF Championship opener on June 21.
"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 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 and finishing, and our 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 fullback 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.
Having said that, Stimac also admitted that it's unfortunate for the team to miss several players due to injuries, and also Chinglensana Singh and Brandon Fernandes, who were released on request.
The inclusion of sports psychologist Shayamal Vallabhjee has been a positive experience for the squad according to Stimac. "Shayamal has the experience of working with various sports organisations 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," Stimac said.
The Indian coach also thanked the Odisha Government and urged fans in Bhubaneswar and the entire state to come and support the Blue Tigers in large numbers, taking inspiration from the jam-packed Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal for the Hero Tri-Nation earlier this year.
"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 also Kolkata previously. It's a great opportunity for everyone to support the national team and stick behind the boys," said a hopeful Stimac.
The Hero Intercontinental Cup will be broadcast and streamed live on the Star Sports Network, Disney+ Hotstar and Jio TV.