India travels to Oman for their fifth 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers match at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, where the hosts have scored seven times and conceded only once. And given India’s past record with Oman and in matches pertaining to World Cups, a nightmare potentially awaits them.
Disclaimer:There are believers amongst Indian fans that Igor Stimac was brought in to solely take India through to 2026 World Cup and current results are negligible. They are not. Back in July, debates were ripe about how India were drawn into a comparatively easier group and their chances are enormous. Four months down and people have bought into the mediocrity.
The 1970 FIFA World Cup hasn’t just been important to the game because it was televised across the Atlantic in colour-hazed television screens in real-time for the first time. It had more evolutional elements than one and the biggest gift that Mexico 70 could give to football was a different approach towards a game.
Prior to that, most nations, regardless of their footballing talents, had a proclivity to go against bigger opponents with an attacking intent that was an uncompromising way of how football “should” be played regardless of the results. However, Mexico changed it for once and all with the ideology that superior teams should be stopped at all cost, which made negative football an art in itself.
Hence, while there isn't any conclusive proof, but the likes of Jose Mourinho, Unai Emery, Tony Pulis, and many others have seemingly been students of that school of thought. India’s Igor Stimac isn’t very far from the picture either. Playing as a centre-half throughout his career, Stimac had instinctively focused more on securing his goalkeeper more than playing attractive football and what the Blue Tigers are experiencing today is a byproduct of that.
People might have gone gaga over Brandon Fernandes’ effective whips from set-pieces but what they have failed to realize that Stimac’s teams have always scored a large majority of their goals from set-pieces. His previous stint with a national team was his own nation, Croatia, and it was a testament to his negative football philosophy. Stimac’s affinity to commit fewer people up-front did see Croatia score more from set-pieces and opponents’ defensive errors, but the trial and error method was never going to cut it on a major stage and instead India have suffered.
India have drawn thrice in their four World Cup qualifiers matches and lost one, with just three points as they sit on the fourth in the five-team group. The lowest-ranked team happens to be Bangladesh who have just one point after four matches, and it has come against India. India’s result against Oman, if not a win, could very much spell the end of India’s 2022 World Cup dreams and what would follow is months of barrenness with ISL taking centre-stage again.
However, Stimac has a huge incentive to stick to his much adored soporific, defensive setup. For, if India could manage yet another stalemate in Oman, as they did in Qatar, they would be one step closer to an automatic third round berth for the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers. As it is a joint qualifying round for the 2023 Asian Cup as well, the campaign gives a spot in the third round of the qualifiers of the continental championships to the third-placed teams and the best four fourth-placed teams from the eight groups.
More than the fact that it would secure Stimac’s job and he would get more time to work on his “vision” for Indian football, a draw away in Oman, ranked 22 spots above them, would brilliantly suit what All India Football Federation has been trying to sell – Indian football is on the right track.
Respecting one’s opponent has been a noble practice in any sport since time immemorial, but when that turns into reverence it could result in fluctuation in confidence and a blurry vision – something that the Indian team is going through.
“Oman are much better now than the team we played against in Guwahati. They are the favourites. We know for a fact that match is going to be very difficult for us,” Stimac has said about their opponents. Now, this would be a perfect PR exercise for any manager and it is regularized all across the world. It has also been used a trick to keep things hazy for opponents but deep down every boss knows what his team is capable of against any opponent – except the Croatian.
When Stimac had described Afghanistan’s side as “having stamina and posing a tough challenge” for India, many had believed that the coach was just being respectful. But, after India escaped by the skin of their teeth against the side in the dying minutes, one couldn’t help but be sceptical about Stimac’s conviction.
Players like Sahal Abdul Samad and Ashique Kuruniyan, two of the best dribblers in India at the moment, have continuously struggled in national colours and people have tended to blame them for the same. The bigger culprit would be Stimac here, who has no qualms about sacrificing their individual skills for the sake of his tactics, which practically discourages going on the offence buoying on his players’ skill set which makes it very predictable for opponents to decode the repetitive counter-attacks.
While Stimac has been asked to put substance over his style ahead of Oman, one almost always knows what would be India’s approach. Given the free goal-scoring form of Oman, India’s midfield could very well see the likes of Vinit Rai and Raynier Fernandes being stuffed in the midfield with their attacking outlet only being in the form of Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh, and Brandon Fernandes. Kuruniyan has been more of a defender against Afghanistan and we don’t expect him to have his magic boots until he returns to Bengaluru FC again.
Tuesday could see India emerging as the hero who stopped Oman at home from scoring, or they could be the side that “gave their 200% but eventually there could only be one winner in every sport.”
India have played nine matches under Stimac, winning one and losing four. And somehow fans and critics are in unison that the national football is heading at the right direction, not paying any heed to the fact that four years wasted is synonymous to strangling a generation of fandom to death. At the end of the day, losing followers is still better than having numerous fans indifferent to the cause.