AFC Asian Cup: Is it time to rock the Stimac-Sunil Chhetri chemistry?

Blue Tigers need to strive to make the next round of FIFA qualifiers and raise the morale of team, fans

Action during the AFC Asian Cup India-Syria match on 23 January
Action during the AFC Asian Cup India-Syria match on 23 January

Gautam Bhattacharyya

No goals, no points — this in a nutshell was India’s campaign in the AFC Asian Cup football as they went down 1-0 to Syria in their third and final group game on Tuesday. The knives are out for head coach Igor Stimac on social media, and surprisingly enough, Sunil Chhetri — who had a quiet tournament — while questions are being asked about whether Indian football has gone back to square one. 

The frustration is, of course, understandable. After a long gap, there was an air of optimism when India won back-to-back silverware at home in the middle of last year, but the quality of opposition in those two tournaments and the ones in Doha were like chalk and cheese. It’s also being pointed out that in the last edition of the continental event in the UAE, the Blue Tigers had at least managed a 4-0 win against Thailand under Stephen Constantine and two ‘honourable’ defeats against the UAE and Kuwait. 

The win against Thailand, incidentally, was India’s first in 55 years in the AFC Asian Cup, the last ones coming from a different generation in 1964. This should give one a reality check of where Indian football stands vis-à-vis the Asian continent — forget the global scene. Did we really expect India to go through to the second round from a group which had World Cuppers Australia, Uzbekistan and Syria, all higher ranked teams? 

A somewhat defensive Stimac said after the Syria defeat that he was no magician, but also  promised that he would ensure that his boys make the third round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Not impossible from their group, where they have beaten Kuwait 1-0 in the first game, but is it more of a pre-emptive move from the Croatian, who was given a two-year extension by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to complete the cycle of qualifiers?

It’s no secret that Stimac didn’t earn himself too many friends with the powers that-be (especially the Reliance-owned Football Sports Development Ltd which owns the marquee Indian Super League) with his frequent criticism of the clubs not releasing players, and lack of preparation time for demanding events like the Asian Cup or World Cup qualifiers. 

Yes, he could well be the perfect scapegoat as a coach is the lowest hanging fruit in any football team, even if he is a decorated candidate, a member of Davor Suker’s third-placed team in the 1998 World Cup, a West Ham legend and an erstwhile national coach with Luka Modric, among his wards.

The qualitative changes that he has brought about in the style of play were there for all to see in the three group games, where barring a mistake-prone first half against Uzbekistan, the Indians tactically matched up to their rivals. 

In the do-or-die match against Syria, they suffered a body blow when Sandesh Jhingan — the rock in their defence — took an awkward blow as Stimac had to reorient their defence, which held on valiantly. It was eventually a 76th-minute strike which did them in, for in the context of Indian football, one point is generally treated as full points against quality opposition.  

Now about Chhetri. Like all good things, the saga of the talismanic captain has to end sooner than later and truth be told, Stimac has tried for too long to ride on his shoulders to bail India out rather than take a few bold moves to find a scorer upfront. To frequent queries about 'after Chhetri who', his standard retort has been that unless the ISL teams played Indian strikers regularly, it would be impossible to find a replacement. 

Looking ahead, India’s job will be to build on a promising start in the FIFA 2026 qualifiers to raise the morale of the team and the fans. Hopefully, the AIFF will not undo all the good work in search of overnight results!

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