Credit to Igor Stimac for grooming young players, says AIFF general secretary Kushal Das-Sports News , Technomiz

Credit to Igor Stimac for grooming young players, says AIFF general secretary Kushal Das-Sports News , Technomiz

Kushal Das credited the coach for believing in the next generation of footballers and providing them with the opportunity they deserve.

FC Goa’s recent debut appearance in the AFC Champions League group stage earned plaudits from fans and pundits alike across India, and despite exiting from the tournament winless, they still managed to eke out three draws (Two against Al Rayyan and one against Al Wahda).

The Gaurs became the first-ever Indian team to qualify for the Champions League group stage, given that although top teams like Mohun Bagan (then) and Churchill Brothers took part in the qualification round previously and none of them made it through to the group stage.

More than five clubs, including Dempo and East Bengal FC have previously qualified for the AFC Cup over the years since the tournament’s inception in 2004, but the Indian clubs’ participation in various editions of the two AFC tournaments have been disappointing, despite Churchill Brothers reaching the last 16 on two occasions (2010 and 2014).

When asked about Goa’s game-changing season and how Indian clubs’ participation in the Champions League could develop football in the country, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) general secretary Kushal Das termed it as a ‘great thing’ to happen to club football.

He explained the way AIFF approached the AFC in a bid to include an Indian slot for the Champions League during an interaction with Technomiz.

“We have three slots in Asian cup competitions, we have the winner of the league phase of the ISL who goes straight into the group stages of the AFC Champions League. Winner of the I League getting a direct entry to the group stages of the AFC Cup, and then, the winners of the playoffs of the ISL. So we have three teams in Asia,” he said during a telephonic conversation on Thursday.

“We did a lot of work for that. We went to the AFC, explaining to them the importance of Indian clubs getting more slots. They accepted our proposal We are much better off than some years back where we just had an AFC Cup slot. We have an ACL slot now, a direct ACL slot to the winners of the league stage of the ISL. I think that’s a great thing to happen to club football,” Das continued.

Meanwhile, the Indian football team coached by Croatian Igor Stimac is currently in Qatar preparing for the final round of FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers, where they will play Qatar (3 June), Bangladesh (7 June) and Afghanistan (15 June). Stimac’s current contract was supposed to end on 15 May, which would have been exactly two years since he took over, but Das said that there would be an AIFF technical committee meeting on Friday, where the officials would discuss pushing for a contract extension until September.

“Actually, his contract expired on 15 May, but he has to continue because of World Cup qualifiers. We will have a technical committee meeting on Friday, where we will push and try to extend his contract till September. That’s the idea,” Das said.

The Indian team’s form under Stimac has been worrisome, having just won one game out of the 12 he has coached. Das said that Stimac needs to be given the necessary space and time.

“With regards to his coaching style, I think, there’s a definite approach, to a certain extent it has worked, to a certain extent maybe has not worked, but I think like every other coach across the world, you have to give the coach space and time. I think Igor also has a very set plan, I believe we have to give him the necessary space and time,” Das commented.

Stimac fielded as many as 10 debutants including the likes of Ishan Pandita and Akash Mishra in the March friendlies against Oman and UAE, many of them having impressed in the latest edition of the Indian Super League (ISL).

Das credited the coach for believing in the next generation of footballers and providing them with the opportunity they deserve.

“Definitely, there’s a transition, and I think all credit should go to Igor to take the chance to give all the youngsters an opportunity. We are in a transitional phase. Many of these youngsters performed exceedingly well in the ISL and the I-League as well.

“All credit to the coach, that he actually believes in the young players and that is the way forward. Experienced players are there but all these youngsters have been promising. We are completely in line with the coach’s philosophy. We had mixed results in Dubai. We played a very good game against Oman but unfortunately against UAE, we were unable to find that rhythm,” he said.

The Indian team, who are bolstered by the return of talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri after having recovered from COVID-19 , were supposed to have a preparatory camp in Kolkata from 2 May before playing a couple of friendlies in Dubai. However, all these plans went downhill owing to the travel restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the Indian team departed to Qatar on 19 May, and have been training within a stringent bio-bubble since 22 May after all players returned COVID negative.

Das also provided an insight into the training routine during the interaction.

“It’s extremely tough. We were supposed to have a camp in Kolkata, then we were planning to go to Dubai to play a couple of friendly matches before we head to Qatar but because of all the pandemic and all the restrictions, it was actually impossible. So the next best thing that was possible was to try and go to Qatar.

“Qatar also has many restrictions with an extended quarantine about which fortunately our president (AIFF president) spoke to the president at the Qatar Football Association and our quarantine was kind of exempted and we are in a bubble,” he added.

He also revealed that the players do not have access to the gyms as well.

“But, it’s not easy in a bubble either. A bubble means you are in the room, you get out, go to the training ground and come back. Team meetings were of course held in the training ground. It’s not possible to have a common dining room, there’s no gym.”

While India may be out of the reckoning for the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, they still can secure a place in the next qualification round of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualifiers by finishing third in the current group. They remain fourth in the standings with three points, behind third-placed Afghanistan (four points). Bangladesh are undergoing a preparatory camp and Afghanistan too took part in a friendly recently, but India haven’t had an ideal preparation, having last taken part in the Oman and UAE friendlies in March.

An optimistic Das said that the players would remain positive ahead of the matches.

“The result, I don’t know. We will face Bangladesh, who finished their league about 10 days back. They are having a camp in Dhaka. Afghanistan are in Dubai, and I think they played a practice match against Indonesia recently. Qatar and Oman have also prepared, but we are very positive, the boys are very positive,” he added.

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