FIFA 2026 qualifiers: Another chance for Blue Tigers to redeem themselves?

Thaw in the cold vibes between AIFF supremo Choubey, national chief coach Stimac

Stimac-Choubey cold vibes a thing of the past?
Stimac-Choubey cold vibes a thing of the past?

Gautam Bhattacharyya

After a disappointing show in the Asian Cup finals in Doha in January, there is again a window of opportunity for the Indian football team to redeem themselves. Barely 10 days later, the Blue Tigers will be taking on Afghanistan in their away game in the neutral venue of Abha in Saudi Arabia on March 21, as a historic entry in the third round of 2026 Fifa World Cup qualifiers beckons.

A challenging ask for Sunil Chhetri & Co as Abha is 2270 metres above sea level while their home match against the Afghans is on March 26 in Guwahati. A battle which, if the relative Fifa rankings is a benchmark (India are at 117 and Afghanistan 158), should not be beyond India and then on June 6, they will host Kuwait in a crucial home encounter.

India had earlier logged full points in the away game against Kuwait thanks to the all-important strike by Manvir Singh.

It's this air of guarded optimism, after a few despondent months, which saw a thaw in the cold vibes between Kalyan Choubey – the beleaguered AIFF president – and chief coach Igor Stimac at least in public. Dismissing recent media reports that they were not on talking terms at a sports conclave in the city, Choubey said: ‘’There was a speculation that we didn’t meet but here we are.’’

A major source of Choubey’s gripe about Stimac over the past year had been the high profile Croatian coach had been an outspoken critic about the certain aspects of AIFF operations – primarily the lack of preparation time for the national team due to a so-called precedence of the Indian Super League (ISL).

The marquee league, run by Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), the Reliance Group-owned marketing company of the AIFF has emerged as the federation’s financial lifeline and Stimac’s strong words has often left the federation embarrassed.

While Stimac was handed a two-year contract extension after the Hangzhou Asian Games last year, it’s no secret that AIFF does not want to rock the boat at this stage and a lot about his future with the AIFF hinges on the national team’s performance in the upcoming qualifiers.

A strong performance there can keep the elusive dream of playing a World Cup finals dream alive for some time – as also sweep some of the recent controversy that Choubey and his regime has been inundated with under the carpet.

Stimac, a member of Croatia’s third placed team in the 1998 World Cup and their former national coach, wanted his boys to learn the lessons from Asian Cup disaster (where they failed to score a single goal and finished last) and move on.

‘’We are a better team than Afghanistan but we need to prove it on the pitch. Playing at 2200 feet will be quite a challenge for the boys,’’ the larger-than-life coach said.

The AIFF supremo and Stimac had a one-to-one meeting a day after the conclave to discuss on the challenges at hand of the opinion that travelling to the Saudi would take them three days and rob the squad of valuable practice time.

Choubey said after the meeting: ‘’I discussed with the coach the genuine logistical problems the team could be facing while travelling there. We have always taken a no-compromise stand on issues related to the national team and hence, we have decided to hire a chartered flight to take our players to Abha.’’

Stimac, in an informal interaction with the media, said he preferred the home match against Kuwait in June to be held in Kolkata. ‘’The players love the buzz here and we have to be smart about our choice of venue. There is often a talk of the crowd inviting pressure on the players but according to me, there is no pressure really in sport – it’s excitement. Pressure is something when there is something like a war on in the country or you don’t have a home or food,’’ added the plain-speaking coach.

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