Before Ruben Neves became a household name in the West Midlands, he was a sensation with European giants FC Porto and his former manager, Julen Lopetegui, in one interview while praising the midfielder had said, “Being young is a condition, not a sin”. Igor Stimac had given us a familiar air.
When Igor Stimac’s 37-man preliminary squad ahead of India’s King’s Cup campaign saw a plethora young debutants, one would have thought that the All India Football Federation might have got their pick right just for once. With the Croatian talking about how he wanted only hard working players, regardless of age, buying into his philosophy irrespective of results, sense of optimism was built.
And while his stint might be just one tournament old as of now, Stimac did spend over a month with the players in training camps and given his previous experience, we would have expected him to identify the one around whom the team could be engineered. India’s 2-4 loss to Tajikistan, however, has made it clear that the Croat is miles away from figuring it out and with the World Cup qualifiers starting in the next few months, it seems quite a petrifying thought.
While most of the Indian Super League (ISL) and Kerala Blasters fans would claim that Sahal Abdul Samad had announced his arrival in Asian football last season in the league itself, for me, it was much later, during a moment of semi-brilliance in India’s match against Curacao in the King’s Cup. To think of it now, the move was only half executed and didn’t even reach its fruition, but it nonetheless brought the crowd to the edge of their seats as I sat stunned in front of the television.
It was at the 73rd minute of the game when a new-look India were trailing 1-3 with one quarter to go. The weather over Thailand’s Thunder Castle Stadium in Buriram had probably inflicted the biggest betrayal Indian footballers had seen. After the Blue Tigers had to endure scorching, clammy heat and drinks break every 30 minutes in the first-half, when they did most of their high pressing, it was raining cats and dogs in the second-half when they were in dire need to control possession and down by two goals.
While Stimac bore a game face and Indian players’ body language gave away very little about them giving up on the game already, deep down we all knew that the match was all but over. And with Sahal doing what he did in such a hopeless period was, to me, extremely impressive. While some players adjusted and re-adjusted themselves to control the skidding ball in multiple touches, others would fall at best, while attempting a sudden burst of run with the match looking as haywire as it could be.
India were having the possession in the attacking third with Raynier Fernandes waiting on the right flank when Sahal made his run inside the box. Up until then, the midfielder’s run seemed a futile attempt at imposing some pressure upon a Curacao defence that looked to be on a vacation.
However, their attention was grabbed by Sahal, who made a run at a decent speed and was almost near the baseline by the time the ball fell to his feet. And while others struggled to stop grounded passes, this speeding player took a velvet touch on the run on his right foot as the ball dropped dead then and there.
Although the ball was blocked for a corner when Sahal tried crossing from his position, the sudden jolt of emergency that was generated for Curacao with the momentous magic would be remembered by all the witnesses.
Sunil Chhetri hasn’t only been the most mercurial striker India has ever seen but the Bengaluru FC star also has a keen eye for talent. Hence, when he had called Sahal a very talented footballer, what he essentially meant was that the Kannur-born midfielder was born with an aspect of the sport that is very difficult, and mostly impossible, to master – composure.
Ongoing ICC World Cup’s star batsman, Rohit Sharma has often been said to have a couple of seconds more up his sleeves than most other batsmen which make his look so effortless. Something similar could be attributed to Sahal when he is about to get the ball, event amidst the congested midfield where he is mostly put in. He always seems to have some more time than his teammates.
Composure shouldn’t be mistaken only on exceptional ball control though, for it also means that one has the keen awareness of positions of his teammates and also the opponents. A good example of that would the buildup to India’s first goal on Sunday when Amarjit Singh’s last-ditch poke to Sahal in the deep midfield saw the latter not only evading his onrushing marker with outstanding presence of mind but also finding a through ball for Lallianzuala Chhangte on the left flank in the same move.
While it is quite definite that we would see a lot of such movements from the player in the near future, it also brings a sense of apprehension if he is in good hands. Not many would know but amidst the Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi Hernandez of Pep Guardiola’s invincible Barcelona team was a Bojan Krkic, who had excited many with his brilliant composure on the ball while finishing. He has since had failed stints at AS Roma, AC Milan, and is currently plying his trade in Stoke City.
While one cannot point out a sole loophole as to why he could never attain greatness, but lack of attention to his strengths was undoubtedly of the many. Similarly, Sahal has been a needle in the haystack that Igor Stimac brings in before every tournament and there isn’t any reason why his reducing efficacy with every game could see him melting into oblivion.
India’s dismal second-half display against Tajikistan hardly saw Sahal in the last quarter and a huge reason for that, apart from him reducing stamina, was his midfield partner. While Amarjit brought in the much-needed vibrancy beside him, which gave Sahal a chance to quickly exploit opponents’ defence, Vinit Rai had to share his defensive responsibilities. The late introduction of Rowlin Borges looked a more ideal one in the middle but India had lost both hope and energy by then.
While the likes of Michael Soosairaj, Chhangte, Ashique Kuruniyan and more are good talents that Stimac has the luxury to work with, he would need to design his side around the one who would string it all together. After all, while youth might just be a condition for some, it is also a period of constant vacillation that has oceans littered with carcasses of would-haves.