World Cup Qualifiers: Indian senior men aim for an upswing in Saudi mountain city

March 16, 2024
With their chances bright of making it to the third round of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, the Indian senior men's football team has travelled to Saudi Arabia to this town

Abha (Saudi Arabia), March 16 (IANS) With their chances bright of making it to the third round of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, the Indian senior men’s football team has travelled to Saudi Arabia to this town, nicknamed the Bride of the Mountain, for an away match against Afghanistan.

The temperature was a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius on the first day of training for the Blue Tigers, who travelled to the capital of the Asir province for the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers match late on March 21 (early on March 22 morning).

At 2,470 metres above sea level, it would perhaps be the first time each one of the Blue Tigers would play at such a high altitude. Acclimatisation to such conditions had to be the first order of business, and so, the national team landed in Abha as early as possible after the ISL paused for the international break. Led by skipper Sunil Chhetri, all 25 of the Indian team members underwent their first training session on Saturday evening.

“Since our match will kick off at 22:00 here, we have moved our daily schedule forward a few hours so that players can adjust their biorhythm accordingly,” said head coach Igor Stimac. The kick-off has been set at late night due to Ramadan.

This international break sees the first India call-up for three players — defenders Amey Ranawade and Jay Gupta, and winger Imran Khan. India head coach Igor Stimac opened up about their qualities which impressed him the most, making them worthy of donning the India blue.

“Amey was in our plans a long time ago before he suffered an injury. He is an intelligent young player with good ability and needs time to start picking up experience at this level.

“Jay has shown interesting offensive capabilities but we still need to work a lot on his defensive shape and positioning. Imran, we believe, can add something extra to the competition for midfield positions. He’s been consistent in taking shots from a distance and creating danger so we need to check how good he can be at this level,” he said.

Stimac believes this is the chance for the new boys to prove themselves, play consistently and keep earning future call-ups. “I don’t expect miracles from anyone. We believe in process and patient work. This will serve us to see how they respond to our demands and if we can count on them in the future,” said the Croatian.

But the doors of the national team aren’t open to only players in the Indian Super League. The eyes of the coaching staff are on the entire Indian footballing pyramid. Stimac spent his last week in India, watching various ISL, I-League and local matches. Sharing his observations, he said, “I watch all the games throughout the season but this time, I especially went to see some of our youngsters playing in the I-League.

“My dear Mahesh (Gawali) is responsible for following I-League players and I wanted to see some of the boys he mentioned to me play live like David (Lalhlansanga) and Bikash (Sagolsem) of Mohammedan (Sporting), Sourav of Gokulam (Kerala FC) and Edmund (Lalrindika) of Inter Kashi. I’m happy with what I have seen and we will keep following their progress,” he said.

“The problem is that the I-League calendar wasn’t adjusted to FIFA windows and clubs need them now, so they will miss this opportunity of representing the U23s in Malaysia. But I am sure this will change soon,” added Stimac.


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